Cautious optimism toward Labour’s pledge to increase cochlear implant funding 

Today’s announcement by the Labour Party that, if elected next month, it would increase cochlear implant funding has been met with cautious optimism by New Zealand’s two providers of cochlear implant services. 

Southern Cochlear Implant Programme (SCIP) Chief Executive, Neil Heslop, said that currently, just 40 adults nationally receive government funding for a cochlear implant every year. Base funding hasn’t changed in six years, despite waiting list numbers compounding.  

“Today, there are 230 eligible adults on the waitlist, and with 200 new referrals each year this number is expected to increase significantly,” said Neil.

“We currently find ourselves in the distressing situation of ‘playing God’ with the quality of life and mental health of a number of otherwise productive New Zealanders. 

“The onset of total and permanent deafness can happen to anyone at any time. It is not part of the ageing process, but a serious disability usually caused by disease or genetics. A healthy diet and exercise won’t prevent it. There is no pill that will improve it. A cochlear implant is a last and only viable treatment that can restore hearing.

“We, therefore, welcome any pledge to make this life-changing technology available to more New Zealanders, enabling them to return to work, hear their children, and contribute to society.”

Lee Schoushkoff, Chief Executive of the Northern Cochlear Implant Programme (NCIP), said any proposal to sustainably increase funding to meet the growing need for these life-changing devices was welcome, whichever party becomes government.

“The technology is readily available, but the Government has currently put it in a glass cage, which is opened only for a select few,” says Lee.

“Cochlear implants are not covered by health insurance - either you are one of the 20 percent lucky enough to be funded, or you pay $50,000 to have the procedure privately.”
 
Both programmes claim the situation has now reached crisis point.

“While we appreciate the financial effects of the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic in regard to other health outcome government investment, the funding increase sought for adult cochlear implants is incremental and comparatively small,” said Lee.

“Together, we’ve challenged all political parties to adopt an increased funding initiative, or a cross-party agreement, that funding will increase to at least meet demand.

THE FACTS ON COCHLEAR IMPLANTS
 
A cochlear implant is a surgically-implanted electronic device that restores hearing for those with profound hearing loss.
 
The current lack of access means New Zealand is now in breach of its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 25). 
 
Cochlear implants in New Zealand are not covered by health insurance. 
 
Five referrals are received for every funded adult cochlear implant, and only 20 percent of patients are in a position to self-fund.
 
Most people on the waiting list were not born deaf – they lost their hearing as adults. The onset of total and permanent deafness can happen to anyone at any point.
 
Hearing aids become ineffective when the hearing loss is more than severe. Communication through spoken language becomes impossible. A cochlear implant is a last and only viable treatment that will restore hearing.
 
FUNDING HISTORY
 
Public funding for adult cochlear implants in New Zealand first became available in 2003. However, this consisted of irregular, one-off surgeries (there was no set allocation).
 
An initial permanent base level of 20 adult cochlear implants per year was implemented in 2007. This was increased in 2013, to the current allocation of 40 adult cochlear implants per year. There has been no further increase in base-level funding since 2013.
 
The previous government provided only a one-off increase of $6.5 million for an extra 60 adult cochlear implants in 2017/18, after a 26,000 signature petition was presented to Parliament.
 
SCIP and NCIP are calling on the next Government to provide an immediate funding increase from 40 to 120 implants for adults per annum, to address the most urgent cases. This equates to just $6.4 million per year.
 
Based on current funding levels, New Zealand’s national cochlear implant programme represents just 0.04 percent of the entire health budget. Therefore, it is comparatively a very small spend for a significant impact.
 
Government funding for children is currently meeting demand.
 
About the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme (SCIP), the Northern Cochlear Implant Programme (NCIP) and the Pindrop Foundation,
 
 
NCIP and SCIP are the only two cochlear implant providers in New Zealand. Both charities are funded by the Ministry of Health to provide public cochlear implant services to children and adults. 
 
NCIP cares for adult and paediatric patients north of Taupo, while SCIP cares for patients south of Taupo. 
 
NCIP and SCIP perform all cochlear implant assessments, arrange surgery, activate the cochlear implant, administer adjustments and provide post-implant rehabilitation services.
 
The Pindrop Foundation is a New Zealand charity supporting severely hearing-impaired adults into a hearing world through cochlear implant technology and services.