Free hearing aids on the NHS at risk

In October 2015, clinical commissioning groups in seven counties sparked national protests by announcing cuts to audiology services and hearing aid provision.

In order to save the NHS money, people with mild hearing loss would no longer be automatically eligible for free hearing aids.

People would have to undergo an individual assessment to prove that their hearing loss was having a detrimental effect on their day to day life. Devon CCG also planned to only give one hearing aid to each patient, even if they needed two.

Devon and the other CCGs involved including Cornwall, South Norfolk, Mid Essex, North, South and West Staffordshire faced a public outcry. There were local protests and national campaigns by charities such as Action on Hearing Loss.

The planned cuts would not effect people with other physical, sensory or learning disabilities. Also unaffected would be children, people with hearing loss since childhood and people with dementia and sudden onset hearing loss.

Hardest hit would be the larger group of people who begin to lose their hearing as they grow older, or those who suffer from noise induced hearing loss.

The issues faced by this group of people would be difficulties hearing at work or in places with background noise. Social occasions and staying in touch with friends and family would become harder. It’s easy to feel cut off from everyone when you can not hear clearly. These people would also be more at risk from isolation and depression as their symptoms continued.

The argument against the cuts is clear. Due to the proposed cuts to audiology services, those with mild hearing loss would face a poorer quality of life by being denied hearing aids.

Because their hearing loss wouldn’t be treated early, they would also be at risk of auditory deprivation.

When hearing loss isn’t treated, the hearing nerves are not being stimulated. This can cause difficulties in processing sound and understanding speech. When the hearing becomes poor enough to warrant a hearing aid, a moderate hearing loss is over 40 dB, the person may find it difficult to get used to the hearing aid.

In November 2015 the CCGs met again to discuss the cuts. North Staffordshire decided to go ahead and now restrict hearing aids for people with mild hearing loss, or a hearing threshold between 25 and 40 decibels. The campaign to overturn this decision continues.

In January the charity Action On Hearing Loss published a report on NHS audiology restrictions. This report details the planned cuts to hearing aids as well as other audiology services. It also details the impact these cuts will have on the people who use hearing aids. This charity is also running an ongoing campaign to protect free hearing aids and services.

Also in January, due to public pressure, the Action On Hearing Loss campaign and huge petitions, South Staffordshire, Devon and Cornwall CCG announced that they would not go ahead with the proposed cuts. Whilst this is great news for hearing aid users in those areas, funding in other counties remains in doubt. East Staffordshire and Mid Essex have yet to announce their future plans. In November they put their plans on hold whilst they started to look at other money saving options. But if none are found, cuts to services could still go ahead.

NHS England will be publishing their National Commissioning Framework for Audiology Services in April 2016. This will detail funding plans for services across the country.

Whether this will have good news for hearing aid wearers and campaigners, or whether there will be more cuts to services in the future remains to be seen.