Emotions vs. dollars and sense

Type:  Coverage 

By Christine McConville
The Boston Herald
It’s a moment Michelle Motta Dardeno of Lexington won’t ever forget.
Her daughter Elisabeth, then just 4 years old, was wearing her pink, sparkly over-the-ear hearing aids for the first time.
When mother and daughter stepped outside, the little girl was speechless.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Mommy, birds make noise?’ ” Dardeno recalled last night. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
It also ignited an activist spark in Dardeno, who will be at the State House, urging lawmakers to require health insurers to pay for kids’ hearings aids.
To Dardeno and other impassioned parents behind House Bill 52, “An Act to Provide Access to Hearing Aids for Children,” it’s a no-brainer.
Each year in Massachusetts, about 200 out of 80,000 newborns have hearing impairments, and those babies need hearing aids to learn to speak and communicate.
But the cute, candy-colored devices aren’t cheap.
Most Massachusetts families pay between $4,000 and $6,000 for a pair of hearing aids, and because the aids are custom-made for fast-growing kids, most sets need to be replaced every three to five years.
For years, the Massachusetts Hearing Aids for Children Coalition has asked Bay State lawmakers to force insurance companies to pick up the costs, but today, only the Group Insurance Commission, which covers certain state employees, covers the cost for children’s hearing aids.
At the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, the insurance industry’s trade group, spokesman Eric Linzer points out that insurers can’t pay for everything and keep costs down at the same time.
“There are dozens of new mandated benefit bills that get proposed every session, and they may well be viewed as worthwhile,” he said, “but one of the big reasons that health insurance costs are so high in Massachusetts is because of the number of mandated benefits.”
He’s got a point. Here in Massachusetts, where health insurers are required to cover treatments for alcoholism and infertility, as well as hormone replacement therapy, state data show that 12 cents of every dollar we spend on health insurance goes to the expanding list of mandated benefits.
But representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat who once worked as a pediatric nurse, says that pinching pennies when it comes to kids’ hearing isn’t smart policy.
“If we don’t address this from a very early age,” she said, “it will have a huge effect on brain development and language skills, for the rest of their lives.”
The rally begins at 9:30 a.m. on the State House steps, and the public hearing starts at 11 a.m. in the State Houses’ Gardner Auditorium.