By Jodi Baxter and Lee Cottrell

The year 2020 brought with it many surprises and challenges across the health-care landscape. As 2021 begins, the Academy is actively engaged with several legislative and regulatory initiatives to safeguard and advance the profession of audiology. While it is impossible to predict everything that may arise, a few issues are likely to be at the forefront of the national conversation related to audiology.

The Medicare Audiology Access and Services Act (Joint Audiology Bill)

The Academy’s top legislative goal will continue to be advocating for the passage of the joint audiology bill. Since the introduction of the legislation in 2019, the Academy has worked with other audiology stakeholders to secure congressional champions and lobby to garner additional support for the Medicare Audiology Access and Services Act of 2019. This legislation 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.

Passage of these key elements of the joint legislation are critical to advancing the profession of audiology. Practitioner status allows audiologists to provide services through telehealth, lays the foundation for proper recognition of the profession by other health professions, and provides a stepping stone to increased reimbursement opportunities for audiologists.

According to a report by a consulting firm, the passage of the joint audiology bill would result in a relatively modest federal outlay   over the next decade and would eliminate duplicative services and reduce Medicare beneficiary copays. A new Congress will begin in 2021 and the Academy is strategizing with other stakeholders for the reintroduction of this legislation.

Release of Proposed Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Regulations

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was originally set to release draft regulations on over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids in August 2020 to implement the Over-the Counter-Hearing Aid Act of 2017.

The release of these regulations was delayed because of COVID-19. We anticipate the FDA will release OTC regulations in the first quarter of 2021. When released, the Academy will move swiftly and provide comments to the FDA to preserve patient safety, ensure device efficacy, and safeguard and advance the profession of audiology.

Watch for Academy news with more information when the FDA releases guidance.

Possible Changes to Medicare?

With a new Congress, health-care reform is likely to be a popular topic on Capitol Hill. At the end of 2019, H.R. 3, a comprehensive drug pricing bill, passed the full House of Representatives. Before passage, three separate provisions were added to the bill to expand Medicare to cover hearing, vision, and dental care.

The Academy, along with Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA) and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) worked to incorporate certain aspects of the joint audiology bill (coverage of treatment services, Medicare practitioner status, and a study on direct access) into H.R. 3. While H.R. 3 was ultimately unsuccessful, it is likely that the issue of Medicare expansion will surface again in 2021. The Academy is actively engaged with members of the House and Senate to advance the position of audiologists.

The Future of Telehealth?

Across the country, providers and patients have turned to telehealth services. As audiologists, we have had to be creative and thoughtful as we provide services remotely for our patients. The Academy was successful in getting the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow audiologists to provide services via telehealth during the pandemic, but this recognition is time limited and covers only two cochlear implant-related codes.

The Academy is monitoring and participating in conversations at both the state and federal level focused on the continuation of the ability to provide telehealth services throughout the pandemic and post-pandemic. This struggle for recognition regarding telehealth further solidifies the need to attain “practitioner” status in Medicare—as this designation would allow for the provision of telehealth services.

What Can You Do?

Audiologists everywhere can get involved and help the profession in several ways:

  1. Speak up. As issues arise in Washington, DC, or closer to home, contact your elected representatives. You can simply pick up the phone and call in to express your concern. Also, try to set up a meeting when your elected officials are back in your district. The Academy will help Academy members contact representatives and prepare for meetings when key legislative issues are being discussed.
  2. Check the Legislative Action Center on the Academy website.
  3. Join the Academy’s Grassroots Advocacy Network to gain information on and actively participate in the Academy’s advocacy efforts.

This article is a part of the January/February 2021 Audiology Today issue.

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