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Connecting Kids with Hearing Care in Georgia

Viana, Kate

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000549528.02003.f2
Audiology Without Borders

Mrs. Viana is the director of marketing and communication at Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation (GLLF), the parent organization of Sound Waves. She promotes GLLF's hearing and vision programs for uninsured and low-income families in the state of Georgia.

Giselle was only 18 months old when a diagnosis of hearing loss changed her and her family's lives forever. Nehemiah was 10 when his teachers finally realized that he wasn't a troublemaker—he just couldn't hear. And Lia was 2 when her mom discovered that her daughter's hearing had failed. These three children with varying degrees of hearing loss had two things in common: Their families couldn't afford hearing aids that they needed to keep up with their normal hearing peers, and they all turned to Sound Waves, the pediatric hearing aid program of the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation, for help.

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The Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation provides low-cost vision and hearing services for the state's uninsured residents, which is now about two million people. The foundation's pediatric hearing aid program, Sound Waves, collaborates with a network of local audiologists and hearing aid providers across the United States. The staff process patient applications, direct successful applicants to a hearing care provider, and determine the patient's portion of financial responsibility. Sound Waves works on a sliding fee scale to ensure that a family's contribution to the child's hearing care is fair but within its financial capacity.

As part of the program's comprehensive service package, each approved child is allotted two digital hearing aids; 12 (bilateral loss) or six (unilateral loss) ear molds; nine appointments with a pediatric audiologist; and a three-year repair warranty. Families may reapply every three years to ensure that there is no interruption in the child's hearing care.

The program is made possible by the telephone relay service (TRS) fund from the Georgia Public Service Commission, which provides funding for up to 120 pediatric patients annually. This funding also allows Sound Waves to serve patients up to 19 years old.

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Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent medical conditions in the world. In the United States, two to three children out of every 1,000 are born with hearing loss in one or both ears (NIDCD, 2016 The numbers for Georgia are similar. Add to that the growing incidence of noise-induced hearing loss among kids and teenagers, and the need for affordable hearing solutions soars.

Fortunately, hearing aid technology has advanced at breakneck speed over the past few decades, giving both adults and children many options for amplification. Today, hearing aids have shrunk in size to be, in some cases, virtually undetectable. They can even connect to smartphones and Bluetooth devices. The problem? Hearing aids are only getting more expensive, and, in many cases, insurance offers no or insufficient coverage.

Only 20 U.S. states require health insurance policies to provide coverage for pediatric hearing aids (ASHA, 2018 Georgia is one of those lucky states, but it faces two major obstacles to getting kids the hearing care they need. First, rising insurance costs mean that a family's policy deductible is often higher than the cost of the hearing aids, which pushes the price tag on hearing care even higher. Second, Georgia's state-mandated coverage is minimal—up to $3,000 per ear every four years. For a growing child whose ears change in shape and size every single year, this amount is simply not enough.

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In its first six months, Sound Waves has provided hearing aids to nearly 30 children in Georgia—with many more applications in progress. As the program continues to grow and evolve, more applications and families served are expected.

“We know the need in Georgia is substantial,” said Elizabeth Nelson Routh, Sound Waves’ director. “Thirty kids is a drop in the bucket, but we've got to start somewhere.”

So far, that “somewhere” has been primarily the metro Atlanta area. Spreading the word about what Sound Waves can offer to local children with hearing loss has been a significant challenge and exacerbated by the reality that much of Georgia remains relatively rural and without easy access to the technological infrastructure and health care resources.

Still, Routh remains optimistic.

“The program is young but it's already proving to be effective and well-built,” she said. “Reaching rural kids is just going to take time, patience, and strategic marketing—all of which, fortunately, we've got.”

In December 2018, Sound Waves will wrap up its first year of serving Georgia kids in need. As the program enters 2019, the Sound Waves team is focused on expanding its provider network and presence in rural Georgia to reach the state's lowest-income and most underserved families.

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