MONTPELIER — A bill that would have required state regulated insurance carriers to cover hearing aids didn’t get taken up this year as some had hoped, but advocates believe it will come up again in 2022, and perhaps even more things will end up being covered.
Ruby Baker, executive director of Community of Vermont Elders, was among those supporting H. 266, which after being introduced by Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury early in the session, was referred to the House Committee on Health Care, where it remains.
“My understanding is some preliminary work is being done to take the bill up early in the next Legislative session,” said Baker. “We’ve heard commitments from the committee, and there has been sort of behind the scenes work happening with Legislative counsel and the Joint Fiscal Office. So that’s tentatively in the works for early 2022.”
This is the first year of a biennium, meaning any bill introduced this session can be taken up again in January when the Legislature reconvenes without having to be formally introduced once more. Baker and others were hoping the hearing aid bill would pass this session, even after crossover, perhaps by being included in another bill.
As drafted, H. 266 requires Medicaid, the State Employees Health Plan and large group-insurance plans to cover hearing aids. There’s also language that would have the Agency of Human Services seeking to modify the essential health benefit package for individuals and small group plans to cover them as well, only a little later.
Baker said the corresponding Senate bill likewise didn’t see any movement this session, however, the budget passed by the Legislature before adjournment did have the Department of Financial Regulation looking into what the cost of adding hearing aids to the essential healthcare benefit would be, among other things like dentures and eye care.
She said that under the Affordable Care Act, since 2011 insurance carriers using the state healthcare exchange have had to cover certain things in the essential healthcare benefit. There’s talk now of adding to that, something Vermont hasn’t done since the exchange was established. According to Baker, other states have gone back and added things, but none have lost benefits.
In March, Laura Siegel, deaf independence program coordinator for the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said hearing aids can cost between $2,000 and $6,000, putting them out of reach for many. Other options aren’t cheap, either, and can be tough to acquire.
Rebecca Chalmers of the Hearing Loss Association of America — Vermont Chapter said in March that for the medical system, the added cost of covering hearing aids wouldn’t be that much, compared to the expense for the people and families who need them.