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U.S. Senate Passes Hearing Care Legislation for Veterans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – November 18, 2016 - The International Hearing Society (IHS) announced that the United States Senate unanimously passed H.R. 3471 on November 17, 2016. This bill, commonly referred to as IHS’ “Fit to Serve” legislation, will provide veterans with improved hearing healthcare access and quality of services by integrating hearing aid specialists into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hearing care team. The bill was championed in the Senate by S. 564 sponsors Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT).  

The bill will create a new job classification within the VA for hearing aid specialists, who had previously only been able to work in a severely limited role for the VA as health technicians. “VA health technicians cannot provide hearing tests or perform hearing aid programming adjustments—services that could help alleviate the workload of audiologists and free them up to focus on disability evaluations, complex cases, and other services for which audiologists are uniquely qualified to provide,” said IHS President Scott Beall, AuD, CCC-A, ACA, BC-HIS. “Having licensed hearing aid specialists on staff to provide those services for which they are permitted through state licensure can provide significant relief while ensuring quality.” H.R. 3471 will also require the VA to report annually to Congress on appointment wait times and staffing levels, providing an added layer of accountability so that the VA is not only incentivized to use hearing aid specialists, but also reduce wait times for veterans seeking care through the VA.

With hearing loss and tinnitus being the top two conditions for which veterans have been seeking help from the VA and the number of veterans growing rapidly, the VA simply has not been able to keep up with the demand. As a result, veterans have been unnecessarily waiting for months to get hearing healthcare services. IHS Past President and Navy Veteran Thomas Higgins, ACA, BC-HIS, felt the effects of the backlog in his own office when veterans would seek him out for care, and he became the first champion for “Fit to Serve,” IHS’ campaign aimed at improving veterans’ access to hearing healthcare services. “What a tremendous victory for our veterans with hearing loss who have sacrificed so much for our country. I am so touched to know that all the hard work IHS and its members dedicated to this cause will have a real impact on the quality of hearing care our veterans receive,” said Mr. Higgins. “We are excited to move forward with the VA in developing policies that will improve veterans’ outcomes by incorporating hearing aid specialists into its team-based model of care.”

The inclusion of IHS’ “Fit to Serve” language into H.R. 3471 was the result of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health Chairman Dan Benishek’s (R-MI) commitment to moving this priority forward, and incorporates the reasonable requests of the audiology organizations to provide clarity on the underlying bill with which IHS agreed upon. Yet the bill takes nothing away from IHS’ primary goal. For example, the original bill and now H.R. 3471 both grant the VA the authority to determine the role of the hearing aid specialist. However, the new language recognizes that hearing aid specialists may only provide services that are within their state-authorized scope of practice – a qualifier with which IHS is in total agreement.

H.R. 3471 passed the House Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously on May 18, 2016, and on September 12, 2016, was again unanimously passed by the full U.S. House of Representatives.  

IHS is privileged to thank our Senate champions Senators Moran and Tester for their strong commitment to advancing this important legislation and for all their work to support veterans’ issues. We applaud their efforts and thank them for making S. 564/H.R. 3471 a priority,” stated Kathleen Mennillo, MBA, IHS Executive Director.

H.R. 3471 will now go to the President for his signature.