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Tuesday, 2 October 1984
Page: 1051

(Question No. 747)

Senator Kilgariff asked the Minister representing the Minister for Health, upon notice, on 27 March 1984:

(1) Do many thousands of Australians have a hearing loss which requires the use of a hearing aid, the cost of which varies from $350 to $800 for a three year device; and are other glasses, contact lenses and prosthetic devices such as glass eyes, arms, legs and breasts covered by health funds, in many cases to the value of $1000 per year.

(2) Is the Minister for Health aware that many people with a hearing impairment are disadvantaged as they are unable to obtain employment without the benefit of a hearing aid and must therefore pay for their own aid and also contribute through their taxes to the provision of hearing aids for children and pensioners .

(3) Will the Minister therefore take action to have the provision of hearing aids included under the Medicare Schedule.

(4) Will the Minister also take action to require private health funds to include hearing aids in their 'extras' tables.

Senator Grimes —The Minister for Health has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) Yes. The National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) of my Department provide hearing aids free to people with hearing problems who are either under 21 years of age, eligible pensioners or their dependants, members of the armed services, ex-servicemen and women with war related hearing impairment or persons receiving supporting parent or sickness benefit allowances. During 1982/83, 53 126 hearing aids were fitted to eligible clients.

Persons not eligible for NAL services acquire hearing aids from the private sector hearing aid dealers at an average price of $500. It is estimated that some 25 000 hearing aids per annum are fitted by the private sector.

Hearing aids on average have a life of about five years.

Many prosthetic devices are covered by health funds. However, the benefits and limitations which are applicable vary from fund to fund.

(2) Yes. The 1978 Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey 'Hearing and the Use of Hearing Aids (persons aged 15 years or more)' indicated that some 26 700 persons could not afford to obtain an aid of which 11 300 persons were over 65 years of age, 10 700 persons were between 45-64 years of age and 4300 between 25 -44 years of age.

I am not aware of any figures that are available regarding the number of people unable to obtain employment because of the lack of a hearing aid. Such persons could, under certain circumstances, be eligible for a free hearing aid through the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service of the Department of Social Security. I am aware that some people may be disadvantaged in this group. Unfortunately the resources are not available to extend eligibility for NAL services to all.

Although the needs of all persons with hearing impairments are a matter of continuing concern it is essential that attention first be addressed to providing adequate services to those who are currently eligible for them.

(3) Consideration of admitting benefits for hearing aids under Medicare would need to extend to a range of other aids and appliances, such as spectacles and dentures, with implications for an extensive increase in the cost of Medicare. The budgetary situation is such that the Government cannot responsibly approve of such an innovation at this time.

(4) In relation to ancillary benefits payable from 'extras' tables, it has been the long standing policy of successive governments that funds are free to include whatever benefits they choose in these tables. The Government's role in relation to these tables is essentially one of ensuring that financial viability is maintained.

However, I understand that many registered funds do offer benefits in respect of hearing aids. These funds include:

New South Wales-The Grant United Order of Oddfellows, Friendly Society of New South Wales; Health Insurance Commission (Medibank Private); The Lysaght Hospital and Medical Club; The Phoenix Welfare Association Limited; Reserve Bank Health Society; The United Ancient Order of Druids, Registered Friendly Society; Grand Lodge of New South Wales; The Wollongong Hospital and Medical Benefits Contribution Fund.

Victoria-Army Health Benefits Society; Cheetham Hospital Benefits Fund.

South Australia-Health Insurance Commission (Medibank Private); South Australia Public Service Association Health Benefits Fund.

Queensland-CPS Health Benefits Society; The Grand United Order of Oddfellows Friendly Society; The Queensland District No. 87, Independent Order of Rechabites Friendly Society; MIM Employees Health Society; Protestant Alliance Friendly Society of Australasia, in Queensland (The Grand Council); Queensland Teachers' Union Health Society.

Tasmania-Health Insurance Commission (Medibank Private); Queenstown Medical Union Ancillary Medical Benefits Fund.