Costco Hearing Aids

Hearing aidBack on March 8, 2008, I wrote about getting my first hearing aids, and why I chose to get them at Costco, which then was an unusual source. Only a handful of manufacturers make hearing aids, so those sold by Costco are no different than those bought elsewhere. I now have considerably more experience with them and can add more advise.

The big question is why are they so expensive everywhere, at about $2000 and up for the pair, which is the only way anyone will sell them. They are, after all, only tiny sound amplifiers that should be cheap.  Neither medicare nor most insurance companies pays anything for hearing aids.

The expense is to pay for all the service. When you first get them and your hearing is still pretty good, they seem very natural. Only when your hearing gets worse, as it surely will, will you have problems. High tones fade rapidly with distance, so speech sounds fine close up, but speech across a room is often unintelligible, as is TV.  So, you go back to have them adjusted, but then people close up sound shrill. It takes a lot of back-and-forth to get the best compromise.   Also, people our age lose them and damage them by all sorts of forgetfulness, such as wearing them into the shower, or leaving them in a restaurant. Retailers have a generous warranty to cover these situations, but the cost has to be built into the initial price.

I have had one of mine repaired, out of warranty, that cost a flat rate of $150. The manufacturer obviously did not attempt to fix the problem and just sent back a new one. I think the $150 is close to the actual manufacturing cost.

Costco proudly states the certified employee selling their hearing aids (a Hearing Instrument Specialist, not an Audiologist)  is paid by salary, not commission. At first, this sounds good because you are stunned when they tell you the price, but at least you know they are not pushing a high-margin product on you.  The problem comes when you later need service. I have waited about a month for replacements, even when they arrived at Costco in a week, which is a long time to live with limited hearing. Imagine going without glasses for that long.  I recently learned that many people simply say they lost their hearing aids while they are still under a replacement warranty and use the original pair as backup.  You have already paid for them in the initial price.

Costco hearing aids have gotten much more popular.  Walk-ins at my store are no longer accepted, and the earliest appointment may be weeks away.  The hearing aid personnel always say they will call you if they have a cancellation, but that never happens. If you were working on salary what would you do? Get on the phone to move someone up? Or be grateful for the half-hour break to catch up on your personal business?  For the same reason, don’t expect an appointment reminder.  Don’t show—lucky them.  That is why you may prefer a mom-and-pop hearing aid retailer in your local mall for better service, even if they are more expensive.

Which brings me to the hearing aid manager at my Costco (new since my first purchase). He is the most poorly suited person for a job I have ever seen, so much so, he is more funny than insulting.   I am only there for about 15 minutes once a year, but he is enduring his living hell every day. He obviously dislikes elderly people, speaks abruptly to us, patronizes us, and is noticeably uncomfortable when forced to touch us.  It is karma in action, and I have to control my tendency to needle him further (“See any wax in that ear?  Look again.”). But he is the manager, so who do you complain to?  Just keep in mind before you buy hearing aids, most of what you are paying for is the service.  Be sure that part will be satisfactory.

Don’t expect to compare prices by brand name. There are only a few manufacturers world-wide and each retailer sells them under their own brand. You have to compare by features.  The quality of any hearing aid over $1,000 is about the same, despite their claims. I believe most retailers have a generous 90-day return policy, so you can try several brands before settling on one, which would be the way to go if you can tolerate the hassle.

Costco only offers one hearing aid model at a time, so no point in asking what else they have. They will tell you any other model is not suitable for your hearing problem.  You will have to go elsewhere to try something different. Their stated marketing strategy for all products is to limit customer choice.  They believe (and I think correctly) customers are only confused when offered a wide variety of brands and sizes.

If you go back a few years later to replace what you had before, they will no longer have it.  You will not even be able to have your old ones repaired because the manufacturer stopped making that model.  Hearing aids are only replaced, never repaired.

Be aware that hearing aids meld all sounds together, so if two people are talking at once, neither one is intelligible to you. No electronics will yet compensate for that, despite their claims. Don’t expect to enjoy music anymore.  Hearing aids are configured for voice clarity, not for the even tones required by music.  And don’t expect to hear your small grandchildren. Their high tone is right in the range you have lost, and they speak far too softly. Wait until they are teenagers and their voice matures, but by then you will not want to hear them.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in Aging, Popular culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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