'An absurd system': Ottawa woman sounds off on $5K hearing aids

An Ottawa woman who recently paid $5,400 for a pair of new hearing aids calls the subsidy system administered by the province "absurd" and "shockingly unaffordable" for many.

Sheila Nemcsok could afford her hearing aids, but many can't — and she says that has to change

In December 2017, Ottawa's Sheila Nemcsok paid more than $5,000 for two hearing aids. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"How much would you pay to be able to hear music?"

That was the opening line of an essay Sheila Nemcsok recently posted on social media and for the partly deaf woman, the question wasn't philosophical.

Nemcsok had postponed buying new hearing aids, letting her old ones falter and finally crumble to pieces. When she finally broke down and bought a new pair, however, the bill came to thousands of dollars.

"I knew what it was going to cost, but it was still a big sticker shock," she said.

She's not blaming the clinic that sold them to her and she's not calling for an across-the-board increase to financial assistance for people who rely on hearing aids.

Sheila Nemcsok recently paid more than $5,400 for her two hearing aids. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Since hearing aid technology has taken a giant leap forward in recent years, Nemcsok is finding herself more able to participate in social life than ever before, but she thinks the system should allow those who can demonstrate a financial need to get a greater portion of their hearing aids paid for.

'An absurd system'

​A 2013 investigation by CBC News found that a device sold by an audiologist for $2,000 would have been purchased from the manufacturer for $400 to $600.

Nemcsok's December invoice for two new middle-of-the line hearing aids — along with dispensing fees — came to an eye-watering $5,435.95.

I've just paid a small fortune in order be able to live as a socially and professionally-engaged citizen.- Sheila Nemcsok

Ontario's Assistive Devices Program entitles her to $500 for each device, so she will get $1,000 back from the province. Her employer's benefits program will knock off another $1,000.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said the maximum subsidy available is $1,000 for two hearing aids and that the program "does not exclude individuals based on income, age or employment status."

But for people who don't have her income, the current reality is "an absurd system which makes hearing shockingly unaffordable," Nemcsok said.

"I've just paid a small fortune in order be able to live as a socially-and-professionally-engaged citizen," she said. ​"What price tag would you put on being able to listen to people at the dinner table?"

Not just a luxury

A human resources professional, Nemcsok is now finishing a law degree and preparing to begin what she calls her "second career." That means the electronic augmentation to her hearing isn't just a luxury: it's essential for following courtroom testimony and speaking with lawyers and clients.

Where her old devices sometimes permitted her to hear just 20 per cent of courtroom conversation, she estimates she's now hearing more than 90 per cent of what's being said.

There are other benefits, too: last weekend, the 40-year-old went to one of the first concerts of her life.

"I wasn't able to enjoy music in the way that other people could. It was ugly and messy to me and I thought people just liked that ugliness and messiness like you might like abstract art," she explained.

Now she's able to hear and appreciate the clarity and richness of both recorded and live music — and she's turning to friends to help guide her through an art form she's mostly ignored.

"I've listened to everything from Pink Floyd to Green Day to Justin Bieber," Nemcsok laughs. "I haven't decided what my favourite type of music is yet!"

Ottawa audiologist Eric Omstead says hearing aid profits for audiologists like himself are typically found in the dispsensing fees, which can range from $800 to $1,000 per ear. (Stu Mills/CBC)

'I wish there were an easier way'

Shelling out thousands of dollars for new hearing aids isn't unusual, said Eric Olmstead, a professional audiologist for nearly 40 years.

"I suppose that depends on the client, some would pay any price to have that experience," said Olmstead.

"It seems like a lot of money, and by God, it is a lot of money for many people. And I wish there were an easier way, but that's the system we have."

Olmstead said that for a hearing aid costing between $2,000 and $3,000, there isn't much profit for middlemen sellers like himself. Instead, profits come from the "dispensing fee," which can range from $800 to $1,000 per ear.

What will happen [is that] we will make the market bigger. Because we will attract people who will not go to the audiologist because it is so expensive.- Patrick Freuler, president of Audicus Inc.

Chantal Kealey, director of audiology for Speech Language and Audiology Canada, said dispensing fees ensure the device is properly fitted so it can be inserted and removed without difficulty.

Those fees, she said, also cover the programming of modern electronic hearing aids, which can be adjusted to enhance the sound of different acoustic environments.

"It certainly is an expensive proposition for many people," said Kealey, adding that her profession has watched as direct-to-consumer and online sales of hearing aids have taken a chunk out of their market. 

A cheaper option

Patrick Freuler, the president of direct-to-consumer hearing aid retailer Audicus Inc., said that's because people who can't afford hearing aids through traditional channels are coming to him.

The cost to manufacture a single hearing aid — not including fees for testing and programming and other services — is only $50 to $200, said Freuler. 

"I think at some point, what will happen [is that] we will make the market bigger, because we will attract people who will not go to the audiologist because it is so expensive," Freuler said.

But Kealey said her association's position is that by eliminating the audiologist from the sale, both patient safety and satisfaction could be compromised.

She added that a $500 subsidy like the one Nemcsok received does little to make a $3,000 device affordable.

"We are really advocating for more community-based services for audiology, especially for seniors," she said.