Madison County’s Ryleigh Palmer is just 11 years old, but she is already well acquainted with the adult world of insurance claims.
Both Ryleigh, a sixth grader at East Jackson Middle School, and her younger brother Isaac, a third grader at East Jackson Elementary, have hearing disabilities. They both need hearing aids.
But opening the world of sound to kids is no simple matter — not when it comes to insurance. Since insurance companies don’t consider hearing aids a medical necessity, even parents who pay monthly premiums for private coverage must fork over around $6,000 out of pocket for a hearing device for their child.
Ryleigh doesn’t think that’s fair. And she penned a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal asking for his help.
“I believe that it’s not fair that insurance companies cover braces and glasses, but not hearing aids!” wrote Ryleigh to Deal. “I want to do something about that! I want to get help to other people like me! Will you be my voice?”
Ryleigh’s mother, Jenny, a third grade teacher at East Jackson, and her husband Tommy, a teacher at Jackson County Comprehensive High School, are working with Let Georgia Hear, a parent-led initiative working towards the goal of securing insurance coverage for children’s hearing aids in Georgia.
The group has gotten some support in the General Assembly this year with the introduction of HB 74, the “Hearing Aid Coverage for Children Act,” sponsored by Rep. Edward Lindsey (District 54). Rep. Tommy Benton (District 31) of Jackson County is a co-sponsor of the bill.
But a bill is one thing. A law is another.
And Jenny and Tommy Palmer are anxiously awaiting action on the bill in this year’s legislative session, along with many other parents of hearing-impaired children.
Of course, Jenny Palmer says she already has the state legislature to thank for making her children’s lives considerably better, pointing out that just prior to Ryleigh’s birth, lawmakers decided to require auditory screening of infants. There are two types of infant screenings, one that measures how the hearing nerve responds to sound, another that measures how sounds echo back into the child’s ear canal. When a baby has a hearing loss, no echo can be measured on the test.
“Had it not been for the screening, we would not have known there was a problem until much later, possibly too late for her to acquire some of the language acquisition so important during the first 14 months of life,” said Palmer. “Thanks to the Georgia legislature, we were made aware of this problem and proceeded to do everything we could to give her the greatest chance we could at a successful life much like all other first time parents. We learned that if a child has a hearing loss and doesn’t get the interventions needed, he/she can cost the school systems an additional $420,000 and $1 million in special education costs over a lifetime. Prevention and early detection can save us all a lot of suffering.”
But apart from their child’s hearing issue, the Palmers were in for another dose of bad news.
Jenny said that as soon as she and her husband learned about the hearing problem, they “did what all good parents would do.”
“We researched all our options and made the decision we knew was best for her,” she said. “We initiated the purchase of hearing aids so that she would not miss any more language than necessary. Little did we know that, at this point, insurance stopped paying. We were a young family, on our own, with a $6,000 bill. We were about to place some very expensive devices on the ears of a six month old.”
On top of the insurance frustration came another hard-to-swallow reality. If the couple was under the poverty line and qualified for Medicaid, then their child would qualify for hearing aids. While private insurance doesn’t cover children’s hearing devices, the federal Medicaid plan does.
Nevertheless, all funding headaches aside, the Palmers delighted in watching their bright, young girl grow, feeling that the hearing aids were a blessing.
“We wouldn’t take anything for the first time they (the hearing aids) were turned on!” said Jenny. “She (Ryleigh) lit up like a light when she realized she was hearing clearly for the first time ever. The light on her face grew brighter and brighter with every noise those tiny devices provided her. We won’t ever forget that day.”
Three years later Ryleigh welcomed a little brother. Unfortunately, he had the same hearing problems.
“There was no known family history of hearing loss in either of our families, but we knew enough from our first experience that it helped us move through the stages quicker and easier,” said Jenny. “Isaac was fitted in hearing aids at 3 months, and still insurance coverage stopped as soon as the aids were ordered. As parents though, we did whatever we had to do to give our children every hope possible for their future.”
Palmer, who has lived in Madison County for 36 years, and who has lived in Danielsville with her husband for 14 years, estimates that she and Tommy have paid $25,000 to $30,000 out-of-pocket for their children’s hearing aids.
Palmer notes that maintaining expensive hearing aids with young children is a challenge, too. For instance, a toddler can’t fully appreciate the economic gravity of what’s on their ear. And kids can be active and forget about the device, for instance, while taking a jump in a pool, which has happened, Palmer said.
Palmer voices great pride in her children and says that their hearing issues haven’t held them back. She thanks the Jackson County school system for working with her kids and other hearing impaired children. The schools have an FM system that kids with hearing aids can access. This system allows them to hear just the teacher without any background noise.
“It is much like someone getting glasses to solve a vision problem and realizing there are actually leaves on those trees that used to look like big green blobs,” said Palmer. “They put these hearing aids on each morning, similar to putting on a pair of socks, and go into their day being able to hear and understand what everyone is saying, especially their teachers at school. If it weren’t for the hearing aids and FM systems in school, we do not want to know where we might be today.”
Kelly Jenkins, a mother of three, and one of several parents who founded Let Georgia Hear, agrees with Palmer. When her daughter was 1, she learned that her child would need hearing aids for the rest of her life. That meant an estimated $40,000 on the devices before her child graduates from high school.
Jenkins notes that 20 other states have passed laws requiring coverage of hearing aids for children. And she’s hoping enough Georgians will speak up to make it happen here.
“I ask you to reach out to your legislators and let them know that this issue is important to you,” said Jenkins. “Ask them to support HB 74. Georgia should be a leader in doing the right thing for our children, including those with hearing loss.”
For more about the hearing initiative, visit www.letgeorgiahear.org.
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