Buyer Beware with Hearing Aids

Buyer Beware – Consumer information about buying hearing aids from Dr. Deborah Touchette, Audiologist serving residents of Magalia, Oroville, Chico and Paradise.

Buyer Beware – Consumer information about buying hearing aids written by Dr. Deborah Touchette, Audiologist serving Chico, Paradise, Magalia and Oroville.

Choosing a hearing aid and hearing aid provider can be a difficult decision. In the State of CA there are two licensed professionals that can sell and fit hearing aids -1) A Hearing Aid Dispenser and 2) A Dispensing Audiologist. In Butte County most hearing aid offices do not have an Audiologist in the practice. In the Chico, Paradise, and Oroville area there are over a dozen hearing aid offices – only 3 of those offices have a licensed Audiologist on site. (My practice as an audiologist serving the ridge is one of these.) All the other offices are licensed hearing aid dispensers.

As an Audiologist that also fits hearing aids I was required to have an Audiology license and a Hearing Aid Dispenser license until 2009. Obtaining the hearing aid dispensers license was relatively simple. The only educational requirement is a high school diploma. No vocational training or education is required. In fact, it is one of the only licenses issued by the state of CA that does not require some vocational training. Barbering and Cosmetology licenses require proof of training but hearing aid dispensing does not! I say this to help you understand the difference between an Audiologist and a dispenser – and that difference is education.

Beginning in 2009 in California there are now two different licenses for professionals that fit hearing aids: The Hearing Aid Dispenser and the Dispensing Audiologist. Now consumers can identify who is selling and fitting their hearing aid(s).  A hearing aid dispenser will often say that an Audiologist’s education concentrates on the diagnostic procedures whereas the dispenser is a hearing instrument specialist. That may have been true many decades ago but now Audiologists study hearing aid amplification and technology formally from the university they graduate from. Not to mention that many of the professionals developing new hearing aid technologies, and the professionals from the hearing aid manufacturers training the hearing aid dispensers… are Audiologists.

In my practice I employ a Hearing Aid Dispenser. We both sell and fit hearing aids. We understand the scope of practice of our two different licenses. We work as a team to provide superior service.

Unfortunately I am aware of the less than ethical practices of some providers. FDA guidelines for fitting hearing aids are not always followed. People were sold what they thought were “high end” hearing aids and received a “low end” model… I am not speculating on this, I have the evidence. This is not the norm in Butte County, but there has been a few rogue offices that have given hearing aids and their fitters a bad name. I bought out two Hearing Aid Dispensers in Paradise, CA  and I have documentation of the unethical practices. I turned the evidence over to the governing CA Hearing Aid Dispensers Board and subsequently those dispensers can no longer practice in CA. My personal experience has caused me to cross paths with unethical Hearing Aid Dispensers but I’m not naive to that fact that there are dishonest professionals in any profession and I have no doubt that there are unethical and/or sub-standard Audiologists as well. My point and advice is that if you “feel the push” from the person selling you hearing aids and you don’t feel your interests and concerns are being addressed… beware. It is appropriate to ask the person that is selling you hearing aids about their experience and education.

The CA Department of Consumer Affairs has a consumer brochure about hearing aids and buying hearing aids at:

Re-Branded and Private Label Hearing Aids

I am a private practice that is not beholden to any one hearing aid manufacturer, giving the consumer a wide choice of options. There are “private labels” out there in the hearing aid market that make it difficult for a patient to do an apple to apples comparison of features and pricing. Some private and/or franchise labels are: Kirkland, Audigy’s AGX, Miracle Ear, Beltone, Audibel, WOW, etc…

These are all reputable hearing aid brands but what the consumer may not realize is that these names are proprietary private labels and can only be purchased, programmed and repaired by the offices that sell them. They are re-branded aids from other manufacturers. The problem is, you become tied to that office or franchise, for the life of the hearing aid (programming can only occur with the private label’s proprietary software) and you lose the flexibility to use another office (For example: vacation, relocation, you aren’t satisfied with the service, or the office closes…) The consumer does not know who the original manufacturer is or who the parent company is…I do.  I only sell brands from the original manufacturer.

For example, GN ReSound owns Beltone. There use to be a Beltone office in Paradise when I started my practice. The Beltone office closed and all the people with Beltone aids had to drive to Red Bluff for repairs or reprogramming. I sell ReSound hearing aids but I can not program a Beltone aid because the computer software is proprietary only to offices that are franchised. Similarly, Miracle-Ear is a re-branded Siemens hearing aid… the AGX aids offered at Audigy offices are produced by Oticon and Starkey…

Another point to consider is that the original parent companies do not give their newest technology to the re-branded label immediately. When GN ReSound or Siemens develops a new model, Miracle Ear and Beltone won’t be able to sell that technology until sometime down the road.

Check out this link for further information on re-branding and private labels.

Free Hearing Test

Consumers are often confused about why some offices give free hearing tests and why some do not. I am an Audiologist provider for Medicare. Medicare will pay for my testing services when referred by a Physician. It is considered insurance fraud for me to bill Medicare for one patient and then provide free testing for the next. Therefore I do not provide free hearing tests. A California hearing aid dispenser’s license does not license the dispenser to perform audiological exams and it would be illegal to charge for the hearing aid candidacy testing (screening) they perform. The testing provided by a dispenser should in no way be considered a diagnostic exam. It is a screening test to determine if you are eligible for hearing aids. The CA Department of Consumer Affairs is very clear about this and requires all dispensers to include a disclaimer about their free testing (i.e., to determine your need for hearing aids).

Low Price Hearing Aid Ads

I saw an ad locally the other day that advertised a very low priced hearing aid but showed the picture of an expensive high end model. The ad also spoke of features that were in the high end model. I can tell you that the model of hearing aid that they alluded to was in no way the cost that they were advertising. Oh, the ad did cover its tail by telling you exactly what model was being sold at the low price; but what it did not tell you is that the picture and the feature also toted were not the same model. Hearing aid model names are not common knowledge and most consumers would never know which model is better. The low price is to get your attention and get you in the door.

Confusing Titles and Certifications

The license title of “Hearing Aid Dispenser” is not always professional enough for the dispenser when it comes to selling hearing aids. So a variety of independent certifications are available to help give credibility to the dispenser. For me, knowing the hearing aid technology is not enough; you must also have the knowledge of the human auditory system from ear to brain. Then you can make an expert fit between hearing aid and patient.

Mail Order/Internet Hearing Aids

The following information was taken directly from the CA Department of Consumer Affairs Web site

Purchasing a hearing aid by mail order/internet may seem inexpensive (compared to purchasing one from an audiologist serving Chico), but there could be hidden costs.

Know your rights and the seller’s responsibilities:

  • California law provides that mail order/internet hearing aids may only be purchased through a dispenser licensed by the California Hearing Aid Dispensers Bureau.
  • The law states that when hearing aids are purchased by mail order/internet there must be no fitting, selection or adaptation of the instrument.
  • By law, the seller may give no advice with respect to the taking of an ear impression (ear impressions are made to ensure the proper fit of a hearing aid).
  • The law also requires that, prior to purchasing a hearing aid through mail order or the Internet, you must provide a statement signed by a physician, audiologist or licensed dispenser that verifies direct examination of your ear.

Beware of potential risks:

  • To work effectively, hearing aids must fit correctly. If a mail-order/internet sale doesn’t involve personal contact with a licensed dispenser, it’s difficult for you to benefit from a proper fitting.
  • Follow-up evaluation, which is important to ensure the hearing aid is working appropriately and meeting your needs, probably isn’t available.
  • It may be difficult to get a refund from an out-of-state seller. According to California law, if you are not satisfied with a hearing aid, and the hearing aid has not been specifically fit for your particular needs, you may receive a full refund if you return it to the seller within 30 days of receipt.

When preparing to purchase a hearing aid, remember to:

  • Always deal with a licensed Hearing Aid Dispenser, to take best advantage of California’s consumer-protection laws. Ask the dispenser if they’re licensed in California, call the Bureau or check the Bureau’s Web site to verify license status.
  • Read the fine print on advertisements. If a pitch seems “too good to be true,” it probably is.

When you visit an audiologist serving Chico, you’re getting a professional evaluation of your hearing needs, leading to the best choice of hearing aids for you. When you visit a hearing aid dispenser, you’re just getting someone to sell you a hearing aid. Is your hearing worth a little extra investment?

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