WA legislature seeks ways to cover hearing aids with insurance

Jill Bujnevicie and her son Hugo hang out on the couch at their home in Normandy Park on Sunday.  Jill testified Wednesday for a bill that would provide coverage for hearing aid instruments on behalf of Hugo, who was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

Jill Bujnevicie and her son Hugo hang out on the couch at their home in Normandy Park on Sunday. Jill testified Wednesday for a bill that would provide coverage for hearing aid instruments on behalf of Hugo, who was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

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Jill Bujnevicie’s son Hugo was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

Although he was a typical child and had passed the newborn hearing screening, Bujnevicie and her husband noticed that Hugo’s speech was “a little different” than his older brother, Enzo.

A hearing test confirmed what the initial screening at birth had missed: genetic and permanent hearing loss that he had been born with. After the diagnosis, doctors then recommended hearing aids, which Bujnevicie said Hugo “instantly loved.”

“It really was like a light went on inside him that I didn’t even realize was off,” she told McClatchy.

The most amazing part, Bujnevicie said, is that Hugo’s speech went from the 19th percentile to the 80th percentile in six months simply with the use of hearing aids. Now 7 years old, Hugo is learning with similar peers and in a gifted program at school.

While Bujnevicie, who lives in Normandy Park and is an emergency room physician’s assistant, is grateful that her family can afford the high cost of Hugo’s hearing aids, she acknowledges that the costs can be very burdensome for other families.

Hugo’s newest hearing aids were $4,400, and needed to be replaced every three years. That cost does not include the molds, which need to be replaced a couple of times a year for $250 each time. Additionally, Hugo needs a digital modulator to be able to hear his teachers and coaches, which costs another $4,000.

Those costs were all out of pocket because most insurance companies do not cover the cost of hearing aids.

Which is what Bujnevicie brought before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee on Wednesday, where she tested in support of House Bill 1854 with Hugo at her side.

Introduced by Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, the bill would require health insurance providers that offer health plans issued or renewed on or after Jan. 1, 2023 to provide up to $5,000 in coverage for hearing devices every 36 months for children and adults .

Wicks told the committee that the bill would treat hearing loss as an essential health benefit.

Wicks told McClatchy in a phone interview Monday that the bill is “really personal” for her. She was born deaf in her right ear, but didn’t realize anything was wrong until she was in elementary school. A family friend paid for her hearing aid at the time because the cost was too prohibitive for her family.

“Hearing is essential,” Wicks said. “It’s really about quality of life for everyone, and it’s surprising that this is one of our very important senses and we definitely don’t treat it with the importance that it deserves.”

A similar bill was proposed last year, but Wicks said it was made into a provision to conduct a study on the impact of the bill. The coverage was initially only for children, but adults were added to avoid discrimination lawsuits.

Overall, the Wakely Study conducted by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner in 2021 estimated that the additional cost of adding hearing aid coverage would only amount to about 36 cents per member per plan.

Previous versions of the bill have been introduced in the past as well, but have never made it through the legislature. A health impact review conducted by the Washington State Board of Health on the 2020 version of the legislation found “strong evidence” that increasing access to hearing aid coverage for youth would improve health outcomes as well as decrease health inequities.

Several other states include hearing aid benefits for adults and children, including Oregon.

Jennifer Ziegler from the Association of Washington Healthcare Plans tested with concerns regarding the potential impact of newly mandated premiums since the legislature is currently looking at other bills that have potential to increase overall costs.

Many healthcare professionals and families with children who have hearing loss tested in favor of the bill.

During Bujnevicie’s testimony on Wednesday she told the committee she was there to give a voice to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

“To the child whose parents could only afford one out of two hearing aids, to the mom who has to decide if she should pay for her mortgage or her child’s hearing aids, and to the child who had to wear a hunting amplification device because his parents couldn’t afford hearing aids,” she said.

No one tested against the bill.

This story was originally published February 2, 2022 2:10 PM.

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Shauna Sowersby was a freelancer for several local and national publications before joining McClatchy’s northwest newspapers covering the Legislature.

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