“Hearing is a right for everybody,” Doppler Labs‘ Noah Kraft told me over the phone last week. It’s why his new chief science officer Jim Pitkow is working with a team of U.S. senators and members of Congress to make certain types of hearing aids available over the counter.
Medically approved hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars, even for those with minimal hearing loss. But devices that improve hearing like Doppler Labs’ Here One cost a few hundred dollars. While Doppler Labs distances its Here One device from an over-the-counter label, the company is still keen to help break up what Kraft and Pitkow see as an antiquated industry.
“It’s controlled by this very small group of companies, many of them a hundred years old or more, that have constrained the legislation to make sure they own the market,” Kraft says.
And instead of prices dropping over the years like they have with most consumer electronics, these companies’ products seem to get even more expensive. Yet, hearing aids are not covered by medicare or most private insurance plans and only around 14 percent of Americans with hearing loss can afford to pay for them out of pocket.
So can’t people just buy one of those $20 hearing devices seen at the drugstore or in the back of a magazine? Kraft cautions these are not the same. “They don’t do anything,” Kraft says.
But there are devices that will do the trick but aren’t currently approved as a medical device. Instead, those with hearing loss must get a prescription or a waiver for one of the FDA-approved, but costlier hearing aids.
Now Senator Elizabeth Warren and friends have reintroduced a bipartisan bill called the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 to get the Food and Drug Administration to create a set of standards for these types of OTC hearing aids so those with mild to moderate hearing loss don’t have to shell out so much money.
“Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t hear well enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with someone, or talk on the phone. It’s devastating and is related to social isolation, depression and even dementia,” Senator Warren wrote on her Facebook page, along with a video clip where she introduced the measure.
The bill so far has a lot of support from both sides of the aisle and from groups who hold a lot of weight in Washington, like the AARP and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Those we’ve asked in-the-know say this piece of legislation will very likely pass.
So what could that mean for Doppler’s Here One? It definitely could help the company open up a new market, and Pitkow says he will continue advocating for hearing health accessibility while with the company.
“Here One is just the beginning. And with the passage of the OTC hearing bill just around the corner, we’re on the precipice of major change for tech and for consumers. We owe it to everybody, and to the community who needs just a little more help hearing to provide better service, particularly in the way of putting people back in control of what they hear,” Pitkow told TechCrunch.