Hearing aid distributors said to use misleading, high-pressure sales



WASHINGTON (AP)—Many elderly Americans are pressured into buying expensive hearing aids that just end up in a dresser drawer because they do not work, federal and state officials told a Senate committee Wednesday.

The marketing of hearing aids has become so aggressive and competitive that they are being sold by mail order or over the telephone. The Food and Drug Administration has even found dealers who offer hearing tests by phone, said FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D.

Although Kessler calls such sales pitches ‘‘ridiculous,’‘ he told the Senate Special Committee on Aging that studies show elderly consumers are particularly vulnerable to deceptive marketing tactics.

A West Virginia widower said he bought a $975 hearing aid after being told he would lose all his hearing if he did not immediately purchase two hearing aids from a Miracle-Ear dealer.

But the hearing aid dulled sounds and wound up in Miles Kidd’s desk drawer. Although the state’s attorney general eventually helped the 81-year-old retired school teacher recover all but $125, Kidd said he does not have the courage to buy another.

‘‘While I don’t believe I will ever purchase another hearing aid, I often wonder what life would be like if I didn’t have to constantly worry about my being able to hear and understand simple, ordinary human conversation,’‘ Kidd testified in a gravelly voice.

In Florida, the American Association of Retired Persons said it found seniors were given misleading information when volunteer testers in West Palm Beach and Tampa sought to purchase a hearing aid.

AARP said its testers found:

_Several sellers who recommended hearing aids for people who didn’t need them.

_One who stated it was in the consumer’s best interest not to see a physician before buying an aid.

_A seller who said a hearing aid would ‘‘exercise the nerve and slow down the hearing loss.’‘

_A seller who said a 30-day trial period would be unnecessary since the hearing aid he recommended used 24-karat gold circuits.

And in West Virginia, an investigation by the state attorney general’s office found seniors were being sold hearing aides that were not suited for their needs because of inadequate testing and fitting by incompetent and fraudulent dealers. Many elderly buyers were also assessed excessive finance charges without their knowledge, said Donald L. Darling, director of the antitrust and consumer protection division.

An estimated 24 million Americans suffer some amount of hearing loss.

Robin Holm, executive director of the International Hearing Society, which represents retail hearing aid providers, called the testimony ‘‘very puzzling.’‘

She said the industry has a comprehensive code of ethics, that most states have return policies and 46 have licensing requirements for hearing aid dispensers.

Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, also cautioned that the vast majority of hearing aid dealers and manufacturers are caring and competent. But, he said, far too many elderly consumers are being sold expensive hearing aids that they either cannot use or do not need because of the aggressive sales tactics of incompetent, abusive and fraudulent dealers.

In many states, he said the only requirement needed to obtain a license to sell hearing aids is proof that the dealer is at least 18, a high school graduate, and a person of ‘‘good moral character.’‘

Kessler said the FDA would have a plan to stiffen hearing aid regulations within six months.

Under current law, consumers are supposed to undergo a hearing evaluation by a physician before buying a hearing aid. Adults, however, are allowed to waive the examination.

Kessler said the waivers are being overused and misrepresented.

‘‘The current system makes it too easy for sales people eager to close the deal on the spot to encourage consumers to sign the waiver and bypass the evaluation.’‘

Earlier this year, FDA ordered seven hearing aid manufacturers to yank their misleading advertising and promotional materials. An eighth company is now being notified.