By Susan Pilch

2021 marks the start of a new administration, a new Congress, and the end of a year punctuated by a global pandemic, economic strain, and political turmoil. The start of 2021 will be dominated by efforts to contain the pandemic, as well as efforts related to transitions in the House, Senate, and federal agencies.

The new administration headed by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris places Democrats in control in the White House. In addition, Democrats control the House of Representatives and, with a slim margin, the Senate.

The House now includes 118 women, which is the highest number yet. The previous record was set in the 116th Congress, when 106 women served in the House.

Of the 118 women sworn into the House for the 2021−2022 term, 89 are Democrats and 29 are Republicans. In the Senate, out of 100 seats, Republicans will hold 50, Democrats will hold 48, and Independents caucusing with the Democrats will hold two seats. With the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats will hold the majority in the Senate.

President Biden, throughout his campaign, highlighted his interest in several health-care issues, including modernizing Medicare by expanding eligibility and coverage. President Biden has also stated his support for increasing transparency in health care and lowering drug prices. Given the fact that the Administration, the House, and the Senate are now under unified Democrat party control, President Biden’s stated health-care priorities will receive serious and concerted attention.

2021 Outlook for the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act

In 2019, the Academy, the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA), and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) worked together to draft the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act. The three organizations then worked collaboratively to garner additional co-sponsors and support for this legislation. This measure would grant audiologists “practitioner” status in Medicare, remove the physician referral requirement, and allow audiologists to provide and be reimbursed for diagnostic and treatment services.

At the close of the 116th Congress, this “joint” audiology legislation had 65 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and eight cosponsors in the Senate. Due to the start of a new Congress, this legislation will be reintroduced.

Building upon the success and support for this legislation in the last Congress will remain the top priority for the Academy. The Academy will again team up with ADA and ASHA to secure additional co-sponsors and seek out any and all opportunities to advance this legislation, either on its own or by attaching it to other pieces of “must pass” legislation.

2021 and Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

Under the terms of the Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act of 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was supposed to release proposed regulations in August 2020 designed to implement this law. However, the statutory deadline came and went and, as we go to press, these proposed regulations have yet to be issued.

Once the proposed regulations are released, there will be a mandatory comment period that will enable the Academy to submit detailed suggestions and comments in response to the FDA proposal. The delay in the release of these regulations has been widely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and many estimate that these regulations may not be released until at least the second quarter of 2021, after COVID-19 vaccination efforts are more fully under way.

Change Equals Opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the flaws in the way audiology is treated in Medicare, with its unnecessary physician-order requirement, limited covered services, and outdated audiology classification of “supplier,” as many beneficiaries struggled to gain access to critical audiology services.

However, a new Administration and a new Congress signal new elected officials, transitions in the leadership of key congressional committees and federal agencies, and fresh opportunities for audiologists to advocate for the changes needed to advance the profession.

Now is the time to reach out to your elected officials and educate them about the critical and necessary services that audiologists provide to patients. Also, be sure to urge them to support the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act, as part of any Medicare modernization effort, as well as any effort to address social determinants of health.

Change can be daunting, but also can uncover new opportunities for growth. The Academy will continue its work to build on the success of the past and to take advantage of emerging pathways to success.

This article is a part of the March/April 2021 Audiology Today issue.

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