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Kaiser Permanente Hearing Aid Centers Offer Full Range of High-Quality Services.

Assignment/Business Editors &Healthcare Writers

PASADENA, Calif.--(BW HealthWire)--Jan. 27, 2000

Stanley Sheinbaum knew he needed a hearing aid -- his wife had long complained that he had the TV up too loud, and his daughter had recently suggested it might be nice for him to hear birds sing again.

So he read up on hearing aids in a consumer magazine and found that a company named HEARx was highly rated. And better still for him, it had become a partner with his health plan, Kaiser Permanente, in Southern California.

&uot;I liked that Kaiser was involved because it means they make sure this is high quality,&uot; said Sheinbaum of Mission Viejo. &uot;And because it's Kaiser, this service is part of my overall health care.&uot;

He obtained a new digital hearing aid at the Lake Forest HEARx center, and it's been a success -- now his wife laments that the TV is turned down too low. &uot;My experience with HEARx was close to perfect,&uot; he said. &uot;The audiologist who tested my hearing and fitted me took a lot of time to get it just right. And when I ran into a problem, she worked diligently to fix it.&uot;

Sheinbaum is among the first members to take advantage of two HEARx West centers that opened in June -- in Lake Forest and Yorba Linda -- to provide easier access to hearing aids. They join a network of 15 HEARx West centers that began operating in early 1999 to provide convenient, high-quality service to Kaiser Permanente Southern California members and the general public.

HEARx West is a joint venture of Kaiser Permanente and HEARx Ltd., the Florida-based firm that is the only hearing aid provider to be accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). HEARx provides hearing and hearing aid dispensing services to both the general public and managed care organizations, most of them on the East Coast. The HEARx West centers are overseen by a medical advisory committee that includes Kaiser Permanente physicians and audiologists. The panel oversees all issues related to quality including whether the proper aids were prescribed for the appropriate hearing loss, evaluating return rates and reviewing any member complaints.

&uot;It's a really good thing as far as our patients are concerned,&uot; said Paul Bernstein, MD, regional coordinating chief for head and neck surgery for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. &uot;It's the only place members can go where they know they're actually monitored in terms of what they're getting. The return rates are extremely low compared to the industry.&uot;

Previously, Kaiser Permanente members could only go to outside businesses, and the health plan had no say over the quality they received.

&uot;This is such an improvement,&uot; Bernstein said. &uot;People were referred to a variety of hearing aid dealers, and we had no control at all over what testing they received or their satisfaction. We had no feedback.&uot;

So far, members overwhelmingly approve of the service. Member survey cards show that 88 percent report hearing better than they did before, and 81 percent say their comfort level in social situations has improved.

The centers offer members many benefits -- the full range of conventional, programmable or digital aids that are worn behind the ear, in the ear, or in the ear canal. Accessories such as wake-up alarms, assistive listening devices for television, and telephone amplifiers are also available.

All Kaiser Permanente members get a special member rate on the hearing aids in addition to industry-leading promotions. HEARx West and HEARx Ltd. are able to offer low prices because of their high purchasing volumes with hearing aid manufacturers.

All patients receive three-year warranties at HEARx West centers

-- as opposed to the one year offered by most hearing aid dealers -- and a free, one-year supply of replacement batteries. Patients who attend three free &uot;HELP&uot; education classes can return their aids if they don't work out within 60 days; the state requires just a 30-day return policy.

Just as important, HEARx West is staffed by state-licensed audiologists who thoroughly test patients' hearing and advise them on the aids that are most suitable for their loss and lifestyle. The audiologists counsel patients extensively to be sure they have realistic expectations for how much the aids can improve their comprehension.

&uot;Many people think hearing aids will work like reading glasses did for them, but we're typically dealing with a damaged neurosensory system,&uot; said Dennis Van Vliet, HEARx West Division Manager for Southern California and an audiologist. &uot;So you may have some annoyance and distortion that can't all be fixed. We have to moderate expectations. But there will be reasonable comfort and a notable improvement in hearing compared to not having hearing aids.&uot;

Individuals concerned that they or their friends or family have experienced hearing loss can call the HEARx West center of their choice. At the HEARx West center, they fill out a detailed questionnaire about their loss, and after their hearing is tested, they work with the audiologist to choose a particular hearing aid.

The audiologist makes an ear impression, and the patient can return in two weeks to be fitted and trained in how to insert, use and care for the aid. Patients are contacted within a few days to check on how they're doing. They return for at least one adjustment in the fit or reprogramming of the volume. They're checked again 30 days later and then on an as-needed basis.

The three free Hearing Education and Learning Program classes (HELP) give patients the added support they need.

&uot;These classes teach people how to get the maximum use of their hearing aids, and we invite their families to come with them because they're part of the adjustment,&uot; said Jerry Northern, Ph.D., HEARx Vice President of Professional Services. &uot;Our classes make us different from other dispensers.&uot;

HEARx goes the extra mile to help patients because adapting to hearing aids can often be challenging, and too many people give up.

&uot;People lose their hearing gradually over about 10 years, and with hearing aids they can now hear many everyday sounds they haven't heard in years,&uot; said HEARx West Regional Manager Donna Gelnett, an audiologist. &uot;Now suddenly they hear the refrigerator humming, the air conditioner clicking on, newspaper pages turning, traffic -- background noises they're not used to filtering out anymore. So they have to learn to adjust to hearing more sounds.&uot;

The HEARx West centers are located in the following 17 locations: Bellflower, Claremont, Hollywood, Reseda, Sun Valley, Torrance, Valencia, West Los Angeles and Whittier in Los Angeles County; Huntington Beach, Lake Forest and Yorba Linda in Orange County; Riverside in Riverside County; Fontana in San Bernardino County; and Hillcrest, La Mesa and Vista in San Diego County.

Additional centers will open throughout Southern California in the coming year.

Kaiser Permanente, California, is a prepaid, group practice health maintenance organization (HMO) serving more than 5.9 million members throughout the state. More than 7,000 Permanente medical group physicians in both The Permanente Medical Group (TPMG) in Northern California and the Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG), as well as 55,300 Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals employees, provide care to Health Plan members. There are 28 major medical centers organized into 12 service areas throughout California.
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