Cochlear implant funding a complete inequality in our health system

In March 2019, Bay of plenty Times journalist, Samantha Motion reported on the funding inequality of cochlear implants within our health system.

She wrote:

Two Tauranga woman feel trapped by their hearing loss and by a lack of funding for life-changing health technology. Lewis Williams, 57, and Linda Giltrap, 55, are each trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars to pay for cochlear implants - surgically implanted electronic devices that bring the sound back for people severely hard of hearing. Despite having profound hearing loss, neither meets all the standards for publicly-funded surgery.

The Ministry of Health said strict criteria was necessary to ensure allocated funding went to those who needed and would benefit from an implant the most.

Williams, a researcher and former university professor said she was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss in 1997 and was now profoundly deaf in one ear. It severely affected life at home and at work. She recently missed a four-day conference when an infection in her better ear meant she could not fit her hearing aid. Unable to communicate, she stayed home. Williams said was almost bankrupted by a "leaky building scam" and had no insurance or means to cover the $38,000 cost of an implant. The funding system was unfair because if she lost her hearing in an accident, ACC would pay for an implant, but the bar was higher for her situation.

"It's a complete inequality in our health system."

Giltrap said she had lost about 80 per cent of her hearing since noticing an issue as a teenager. It had been a "struggle all my life" but she had coping strategies, which she believed were a disadvantage when it came to funding eligibility.

"I get the impression it is less about my hearing and more about my capability."

She wore hearing aids but some sounds were gone. She had given up cycling as she could not hear vehicles behind her.

"A cochlear implant would make my life so much better."

The Ministry of Health's annual budget for cochlear implants has been steady at $8.43 million for each of the last three years, including 2018/19. It covers around 100 implants a year. In response to growing wait times, the previous Government added a one-off $6.5 million for an extra 60 adult implants in 2017/18.

Mathew Parr, the Ministry's acting deputy director-general for disability, said he appreciated the impact of hearing loss on a person's quality of life and how life-changing a cochlear implant could be. Parr said implants for children were prioritised "because hearing is so critical to children's learning". Additional funding would for cochlear implants be considered. Tauranga audiologist Ben de Farias said it was always hard to tell a client there were no options left. Amplification helped many but the benefits of hearing aid were limited for those with severe impairment. An implant was needed.

"It is this group of individuals who have lost a lot of their independence that need our greatest support, however public funding is lacking."

An implant cost $18,500 to $50,000 and the processors needed replacing every seven years at a cost of up to $10,000.

Waiting to hear

Even for those who meet all of the strict eligibility criteria for publicly funded cochlear implant surgery, there is a wait.

National waiting list: 227 people
Average wait time: Two years
Bay of Plenty waiting list: 11 people.

Source: Ministry of Health

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