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Study finds purchase of hearing aids a frustrating experience

April 21, 2003

Baby Boomers listen up! Study finds purchase of hearing aids a frustrating experience for many
Trial periods, refunds and release of audiograms among trouble spots

AUSTIN, TX — Nearly 4 out of 10 Americans will suffer from hearing loss by age 65 and many of them will turn to hearing aids to once again hear what they’ve been missing. But a study released by Consumers Union today finds that many purchasers will become frustrated with their shopping experience due to high costs, short trial periods, and refund offers filled with loopholes.
Consumers Union surveyed hearing aid dispensers in five Texas cities — Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio — last November and examined complaints filed against sellers, or “dispensers,” of hearing aids to see what kinds of issues concern consumers most.
“While hearing aid technology has made significant strides of late, the sales experience is often an entirely different matter,” said Lisa McGiffert, senior policy analyst for the Southwest Regional Office of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. “Inadequate trial periods and difficulties in getting refunds for unsatisfactory products are a genuine sore spot with the consumer.”
Hearing loss is an increasingly important issue to the large Baby Boomer population. There are approximately 28 million Americans afflicted by it. Every 7 seconds a Baby Boomer turns 50 and it is projected that by the year 2015 the number of Americans suffering from hearing loss will increase between 20 to 25 percent. Further, an estimated 10 percent of 40-year olds suffer hearing impairment, and certainly years of listening to loud music will bring more and more younger people to this growing market.
Three out of four complaints filed against hearing instrument fitters and dispensers from January 1, 1999 to September 1, 1999 related to problems with the 30-day trial period and refunds. For example:
* Consumers tried to return the aid, but the fitter convinced them to get adjustments while the trial period ran out.
* Repeated repairs interfered with allowing consumers adequate time to try out the hearing aid without interruption.
* Consumers could not get a refund or could not get it in a timely way.
* Consumers did not realize they would pay steep “holdback” fees if they decided the hearing aids didn’t work for them.
Refund issues are important to consumers because hearing aids are not generally covered by insurance and can range in price from a couple hundred dollars for the least technologically advanced models to thousands of dollars for digital models loaded with bells and whistles. Among the useful features and add-ons are volume control, directional microphones, audio-input options, and a device that allows hearing without feedback when using the phone.
Another problem is that 50 percent of the dispensers surveyed that offered free tests to lure customers in, set conditions on the release of tests results, making comparison shopping difficult. Some offered “free” hearing evaluations but charged money to provide the audiogram – the record of test results – to the consumer. Others would only release the audiograms to doctors, and two dispensers in Houston offered free tests only if the potential customer bought the hearing aids from them.
While Texas law is silent on the release of audiograms, McGiffert noted: “The release of audiograms is key to giving consumers the ability to seek a second opinion or to find a better price before making a significant purchasing decision.”
The survey of hearing aid dispensers also found that 85 percent of dispensers charged “holdback” fees if customers return the hearing aids within the 30-day trial period required by law. The fees are typically a set amount or percentage of the price and can be hundreds of dollars. High fees to return the aid lock consumers into an unsatisfactory purchase, despite their right to return it.
Future problems with the sale of hearing aids will be nearly impossible to detect because the Texas Legislature in 1999 passed sweeping confidentiality provisions making all complaints secret. In the report, Consumers Union recommends that the legislature make information about complaints public again.
In addition, Consumers Union is calling on the State Committee in the Fitting and Dispensing of Hearing Aids and the State Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology to:
* Sufficiently enforce administrative penalties, including those involving the 30-day trial period;
* Change the contract format to allow consumers to initial next to the specific trial period date and the price of the holdback fee, to indicate proper disclosure; and
* Allow consumers to try a different hearing aid within the 30-day period without having to pay a high holdback fee.
CU is also asking the Legislature to provide for longer trial periods; cap the amount of the holdback fee; and specify that consumers be provided with a free copy of any hearing test results. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, has filed HB 3301, which will implement various changes recommended by Consumers Union.
“In the meantime, consumers can help themselves by asking questions about the trial period, allowable extensions to the trial period, the manufacturer’s warranty, and their ability to get the audiogram from the dispenser,” McGiffert said. “They should not hesitate to shop around and ask plenty of questions.”
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Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is an independent, nonprofit testing and information organization serving only the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public, and protect consumers.