The great hearing aid ripoff – why do we tolerate it?

My hearing is seriously impaired, it has impacted my life for decades, and I’ve spent at least $10,000 on hearing aids over the past 30 years with only nominal success. I purchased my last pair of hearing aids for $4,500 about six years ago. They never worked real well, one of them is now lost, and the other stopped working and the company said it was “too old” to repair!

Now I am not ignorant when it comes to electronics. I was first licensed as a ham radio operator nearly half a century ago and still occasionally build small electronic devices from parts. And I am frustrated because I have no trouble at all hearing a television show. Why? Because i ran a pair of wires from the TV set’ speaker to the input jack of an old Radio Shack hi-fi amplifier purchased in the 1980s for about $100. I plug regular $10 headphones into the amplifier – which I have left turned on 24-7 for at least a decade – and my wife, with her near perfect hearing, frequently asks me what was said when we watch a show together. She’s listening to the same tv at a normal volume through it’s normal speaker. If I take my headphones off the sound is so low for me – normal for her – that I can barely tell the tv is on. But wear my headphones and I hear shows better than my wife. For that matter, I rarely have trouble hearing people on the telephone, though I sometimes slide the amplifying switch to high.

But if I go to a hearing aid company – and I’ve tried several different name brands over the years – they tell me my hearing is so impaired that it’s getting near the point where no hearing aid will help. (Yes, I’ve had audiologist check it – they come up with the same graph as the folks selling the hearing aids. As with many people, my loss is in the high frequencies making it hard to comprehend what is being said. )

But use a relatively cheap amplifier and headphones and I do fine.

Not wanting to plunk down another $4,000-plus for a pair of hearing aids that only partially solve my problem I’ve been prowling the Web and searching stores for other solutions. So far, one of the better ones I came up with was a $40 amplifier from Radio Shack that i can wear around my neck and plug headphones into. This has worked for me in a couple situations – sitting at a table with family or friends, and riding in the front seat of a car, dangling the device over the back of the seat, and thus being able to carry on a conversation with the people in the rear seat. But the sound quality isn’t that good. I know it could be better and not at a horrendous cost. In certains ituations, however, it offers as much improvement as a $2,000 hearing aid, though less convenient then something you wear in – or on – your ear.

I also know that one of the problems here is vanity – human vanity – but not mine. Damn it I am not vane about my hearing loss and I don’t know why anyone should be, but much of the hearing aid industry advertising is obviously aimed at people who are vane – or they assume are vane. I don’t need a device hidden in my ear. Why the hell should I be ashamed of the fact that I can’t hear well? I’ll gladly wear any reasonably-sized device in my ear, behind my ear, around my neck – or sit it on the table in front of me – and wear headphone if it will allow me to participate in family conversations. But this shouldn’t cost me $4,000. It should not cost me $1,000; one hundred dollars – maybe. Or if it performed like an Ipod, I would pay Ipod prices – but hey, I have one of those terrific little postage-stamp-sized ipods that delivers great sound and costs $50. Why in the world should a hearing device cost me more?

I think part of the issue is the industry simply preys on elders who are the main market for these devices and who frequently are not that savvy when it comes to electronics – and yes, maybe a lot of them are vain. Geeeeeze – if so, get over it folks. it’s wonderful to be able to hear. I love birds. But no bird who sings higher than a crow gets to my ears unless I have some sort of hearing device handy.

One of the things that really frustrates me is when I look at the price of other relatively complex- and minaturized – electronics. For example, I paid $25 for a radio-controlled model airplane for my grandchild recently. Yes, it was on sale. But it worked. What was involved? A dinky foam airplane that contained an electric motor, control devices that were hooked to a radio receiver, and an onboard, rechargeable battery. In addition there was a radio transmitter that ran on regular batteries and also was used to recharge the battery that was attached to the airplane. That’s a heck of a lot of minaturized electronics – all weighing in at a few ounces – and all for $25.

Yes, there are some hearing aids out there now through the Web that come in under $1,000 – but I simply don’t know if I can trust them because the companies are young, the brands unknown. I don’t want to invest $500, for example, then find out the device doesn’t work.

If anyone has found a good, reasonably-priced solution, I’d like to know about it. Seems to me some honest entrepreneur could develop and excellent asisted hearing device for the price of an Ipod, make a lot of money, and at the same time be aboon to significant portion of the population.