Health coverage for hearing aids

BURBANK ? For the fourth time since 2002, the California State Senate is grappling with a bill that would require insurance companies help finance hearing aids for children.

It's a legislative battle inspired by one determined Burbank parent.

"A constituent of mine came in who had two children, both of whom were hearing impaired," said State Sen. Jack Scott, who introduced the bill. "She was saying she had health insurance but hearings aids were not covered ? that just didn't seem fair to me."

The bill that Scott then introduced during a press conference at George Washington Elementary would require insurance companies to pay up to $1,000 to provide hearing aids to children younger than 18.

Over the past four years, the bill has floundered as legislators demanded a study be conducted calculating the cost of the mandate. Even in 2004, when the bill was passed by the Senate and State Assembly, it lost momentum after reaching Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk.

"It was blocked before primarily on the fear that it would raise the premiums too much," Scott said.

This time around, Scott believes he has allayed the concerns that blocked the bill in past years.

A study conducted by the University of California found that the mandate would increase insurance premiums by only 1% a month.

"Frankly, that's the only objection that's ever been raised to the idea," he said.

The findings of the study, however, have not left the bill without opposition.

Bobby Peña, spokesperson for the California Assn. of Health Plans, said the impact of the bill has to be measured alongside a number of other similar bills also demanding a service be included in all health plans.

"Any individual mandate isn't going to drive up the cost on its own to an unaffordable position," Peña said. "Each year we've had legislators coming and saying 'mine isn't that big.'"

Mandates also limit the amount of choice that consumers have when selecting a health plan, he said.

"When there's a mandated benefit, it's not necessarily a mandate in the health plan," Peña said.

"It's really a mandate on the consumer ? we've taken away the options."

For those insured by employers, however, the choice is made for them.

Susan Graffman, the Burbank parent who brought her predicament to Scott four years ago, believes the mandate to be necessary because it focuses on children.

"If my older son didn't have a hearing aid he wouldn't be talking," she said.

"For education purposes all children should have some sort of coverage."

The bill passed out of the Senate Banking, Finance and Insurance Committee on April 19 and passed the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday. It will have to be approved by both the Senate and the California State Assembly before it reaches the governor's desk.

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