Hearing aid subsidies vary in Canada, fall short in Manitoba

Manitoba is falling behind other provinces by not paying for any part of the expense of hearing aids for seniors who are not on income assistance, CBC News has found.

Hearing aid subsidies fall short in Manitoba

CBC News: Winnipeg at 6:00

8 years ago
Manitoba lags behind other provinces and territories when it comes to subsidizing hearing aids for seniors who are not on income assistance, CBC News has learned. 2:04

Manitoba is falling behind other provinces when it comes to subsidizing hearing aids for seniors who are not on income assistance, a CBC News investigation has found.

Eight of Canada's provinces and territories provide some level of subsidy for hearing aids, which can cost anywhere from $1,500 to more than $8,000, to seniors who are not on income assistance.

In Manitoba, only those under 18 qualify for a payment of 80 per cent of the cost.

Advocates say they have been lobbying the province for years on this issue.

Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald says she is ordering a review of other provinces' practices as a result of the investigation by the CBC News I-Team.

"I certainly can say that when the I-Team brought this to us, it absolutely was jarring to me that we are an outlier in this respect," Oswald said in an interview.

Oswald said Manitoba is not required to provide hearing-aid coverage since it falls outside the Canada Health Act. But because other provinces offer some relief, she is ordering a review anyway.

Hearing loss a struggle

That's welcome news to those who are hard of hearing, like Linda Pichette of St. François Xavier, Man.

"Even if it's $500 [subsidy], I would be satisfied with that. More than that, I'd be laughing," she said.

Pichette, 58, has lived with hearing loss her whole life. But before getting hearing aids, life was more than a struggle. It affected everything she did.

"I would sit in the back corner because I couldn't have a conversation. There were times when my in-laws thought I was rude because I didn't say anything, and if they talked to me I didn't answer," Pichette said.

"Depression set in, I wouldn't go anywhere. I wouldn't go to gatherings, movies."

For Pichette, even parenting was a struggle. She couldn't hear her son crying at night when he was little, she recalled.

"I felt like I was failing and I wasn't good enough, like there was something wrong with me," she said.

Financial burden

Pichette's latest pair of hearing aids cost her more than $5,000, which she calls a financial burden — and it was all paid out of her own pocket.

She said she is still paying for them now, since she bought them on credit.

Cathy Cooke of Winnipeg knows the feeling. Also hard of hearing, she advocates for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Awareness Association.

"Your world shrinks so badly. It's not fun to do the things you used to do — go to family gatherings, go to a picture show. You become more and more isolated," she said.

Some people who need hearing aids can get coverage under Veterans Affairs Canada or the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba, provided they qualify.

Across Canada, First Nations and Inuit people may be covered under federal health benefit programs.

Many private insurance plans offered by employers will help some hard-of-hearing people, but unless they have that special coverage or are on income assistance, older Manitobans get no help to pay for the hearing aids they need.

Coverage varies across Canada

Seniors in other parts of Canada, such as Yukon and the Northwest Territories, start getting full coverage for hearing aids at age 60.

British Columbia offers a program called the Equipment and Assistive Technology Initiative, in which seniors can apply for financial assistance.

However, advocates in British Columbia say that the eligibility is restrictive and seniors must be looking for work.

Albertans participate in a cost-sharing program where the savings can be up to $900 per hearing aid. 

In Ontario, the Assistive Devices Program pays up to $500 per hearing aid for everyone, or $1,000 for a pair.

Saskatchewan offers a subsidized audiology clinic where the waiting times are long, but the savings on service could be up to $500.

In New Brunswick, the province is the payer of last resort but will cover hearing aids for those who qualify financially and have no other way of paying.

'They just don't get it'

Nova Scotia and Manitoba do not offer a financial avenue for seniors who are not on income assistance. Nova Scotia will offer free hearing tests and assessments in their provincial clinics but will not cover the cost of hearing aids.

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In both of those provinces, hearing aids are tax-exempt.

Cooke says cost has everything to do with why Manitobans don't get hearing aids or don't upgrade the ones they have.

"Certainly for a profound hearing loss today you are looking at between four and eight thousand dollars to get hearing aids if you need them," said Cooke.

Cooke says her organization has been lobbying the Manitoba government for years to bring in subsidies.

"They just don't get it," she said.

"It's not fair. There seems to be money for other things. I don't think the powers that be recognize the social implications and shrinking world of the people that do have hearing issues."