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How to shop for a hearing aid

Millions of Americans experience premature hearing loss. Even so, about 60 percent of people who need hearing aids don't get them for a variety of reasons, including concerns about appearance, cost and the logistics of how to find one. The following tips can help you navigate the process of selecting a hearing aid.

1. Find a good "dispenser." A "hearing aid dispenser" may be a trained audiologist or a merchant who specializes in selling hearing aids. You should interview several and ask them about their education, experience and follow-up care. Don't feel pressured to rush into buying a hearing aid.

2. Keep your options open. Make sure the dispenser you choose sells products from a variety of manufacturers so you'll have a good selection.

3. Check out the dispenser's background. Learn about his or her complaint history and licensing or certification status with the state by calling the Better Business Bureau at (800) 955-5100 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (800) HELP-FLA (435-7352).

4. Know how the pricing works. Find out whether the dispenser will charge you one flat fee or bill you separately for the hearing tests, the hearing aids and other services.

5. Obtain a clean bill of health. Get both an ear examination from a physician and a hearing evaluation from a dispenser. The physician will make sure your hearing loss isn't the symptom of an underlying medical condition, and the audiologist will make sure you're a good candidate for a hearing aid.

6. The truth about trial periods. Ask the dispenser about a free trial period, and about trying out more than one hearing aid for comparison purposes. Many hearing aid manufacturers will make adjustments during the trial period and allow returns within 60 to 90 days at no charge to the dispenser.

7. Don't take unnecessary risks. Realize the risks of purchasing a hearing aid from a door-to-door salesperson, through the mail or via an advertisement that says you don't need a hearing examination. You may get stuck with a shoddy hearing aid.

8. Read the contract carefully. The hearing aid purchase agreement should include any verbal promises and spell out whether the warranty will be honored by the manufacturer or the dispenser, what services you'll receive and whether you'll get a replacement if your hearing aid needs repair.

9. Get a tax break. If you work for a company that offers a health care reimbursement account, use it to pay for your hearing aid. You'll avoid both income and Social Security taxes on the money.

10. Have realistic expectations. It may take some time for your brain to adjust to the hearing aid, so you may not be able to tell right away whether you like the way it's working. Also recognize that hearing aids can be a huge help, but they don't restore normal hearing and they don't work well in all situations.

Sources: AARP (www.aarp.org); Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (www.shhh.org or www.hearingloss.org); American Academy of Audiology (www.audiology.org/consumer/); Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov)

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