Nebraska children that are deaf or hard of hearing can now enjoy learning, watching movies and living their childhood with the help of LB15 - Adopt the Children of Nebraska Hearing Aid Act.

Hearing loss is the third most common health condition in the United States and about 20% of Nebraska’s population has some form of hearing loss and 1% of that population is deaf. The 20% equates to about 300,000 people and the 1% equates to around 18,000 residents. It is estimated that every 3 out of 1,000 babies are born deaf or hard of hearing.

John C. Wyvill, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said the passing of LB15 will have a life-altering impact on the children using hearing aids and their families.

“Having access to affordable hearing aids will better education outcomes, which will in turn have better employment outcomes,” Wyvill said. “It provides hope and opportunities for children to know there are no barriers for what they want to do.”

On May 23, the Nebraska Legislature passed the LB15-Adopt the Children of Nebraska Hearing Aid Act on a 48-0 vote that will require insurance companies to cover the costs of hearing aids for children 18 years and younger. It will cover up to $3,000 of costs every four years. The bill was introduced by Sen. Carol Blood on Jan. 10 and it was finally signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts on May 29. This law will go into effect in January of 2020 and it makes Nebraska the 23rd state to pass such a bill.

With hearing aids costing up to $6,000, the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing made it its mission to create a bill with Sen. Blood that would help children who are hard of hearing. Wyvill said the commission worked on this bill for about seven years and was fortunate it passed the first year it was introduced in the Legislature.

The commission is a nine-member board independent advocacy organization that serves the deaf, blind and hard of hearing with communicative access in various settings such as in education, employment and emergency preparedness.

The mission of the organization is to reach equality in social, legal and vocational opportunities for individuals that are deaf or hard of hearing. The nine-member board has three deaf members, three hard-of-hearing members and three members with background and knowledge of the deaf and hard of hearing.

For Jeremy Fitzpatrick of Omaha, chairperson for the NCDHH, this law means a lot to his family because his son Quinn was diagnosed hard of hearing at four months. Fitzpatrick said his work on LB15 was motivated by seeing how important this bill was for families through his son.

Now that Quinn is 7 years old, Fitzpatrick said he is doing well in school and life and it is because of his access to hearing aids. Fitzpatrick said it is critical for children born hard of hearing to get hearing aids as soon as possible because it will impact their learning and growth.

“For middle-class families, the expense of hearing aids is a big expense. They are very, very expensive,” Fitzpatrick said. “It puts a lot of financial pressure on families that are already dealing with a difficult diagnosis. It makes them focus on the dollars rather than the education and well-being of their children.”

Fitzpatrick said this law will have a major impact for the small number of Nebraskan families having to deal with the cost of hearing aids and their replacements. Despite the small number, Fitzpatrick said this bill is to give all Nebraskans the chance to meet their potential.

“This bill is not only for people with hearing aids, but all Nebraskans,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you don’t get those kids early, it will give taxpayers more educational and social costs in the future.”

It is estimated taxpayers will save up to $42,000 of funds if people that are deaf or hard of hearing get hearing aids early on.

With approximately 20 students in the Grand Island school district from ages 3 to 21 who are hard of hearing, Melody Pebley said LB15 will have a huge impact on those children. Pebley is the special education supervisor at the Grand Island Public Schools,

She said hearing the correct sounds and pronunciations of words greatly affects the educational and communicative growth of children.

Pebley has worked in the special education program for 21 years and supervised the deaf and hard of hearing program at the Grand Island Public Schools for about 12 years. Pebley said the most common difficulties students who are deaf or hard of hearing have in the classroom are not being able to hear the teachers and background noises that are distracting.

“Why this law is so crucial to our kids is the access to communication and being able to hear someone when they begin to speak and learn to form words,” Pebley said. “Hearing it correctly has a huge direct impact on how you learn it and how you are able to produce reading and writing.”

Although the special education program can provide hearing tests through the school district for students who are referred, they do not provide individual hearing devices. Pebley said the costs of hearing aids and tests are astronomical.

“I know we have students who have gone to audiologists and audiologists have recommended hearing aids and those kinds of things and some families have not been able to afford the cost of their child having correct amplification devices,” Pebley said.

Pebley said they attempt to help those children without amplification devices by giving them seating accommodations and providing classroom amplifications. However, this new law will lessen the number of students in the special education program and help them better transition to regular classroom settings.

Kim J. Andresen, doctor of audiology at The Hearing Clinic in Grand Island, has more than 15 years of experience and said children born deaf or hard of hearing should have hearing devices placed within three months.

Andresen said she sees from 75 to 100 children a year for ear exams and she sees 60 to 70 kids a year who need hearing devices. Although many of her patients have Medicaid, which covers hearing tests and hearing aids, other families have relied on the HearU Nebraska donation bank. HearU Nebraska donates hearing aids for children 18 and younger for a set time. However, Andresen said there are more kids with hearing needs than available hearing aids.

“The fact that this policy is available with $3,000 of coverage, which will get them great hearing aid technology every four years, is massive,” Andresen said. “It is relieving that financial burden.”

The sooner kids deaf or hard of hearing are fit with hearing devices, the sooner their brain will stimulate, develop peer relationships and grow at the same rate as their peers that are not deaf or hard of hearing.

Andresen said the stigma against people that are hard of hearing and hearing devices has decreased through the years and people are better understanding of how to take care of their ears and it is making a difference. Andresen said the majority of children born deaf or hard of hearing come from parents that are not deaf or hard of hearing.

“Getting technology on them right away and not worrying about finances because of this bill is huge for families,” Andresen said.

She said early intervention is the best strategy to helping children that are hard of hearing because humans are only given a limited amount of hair cells in the ears that rapidly disappear if they are not given hearing devices.

“Kids want to hear and when they take their hearing aids out, they get scared,” Andresen said. “It’s a dark place for them. They just want to hear.”

Wyvill said the approval of LB15 was an example of people, Nebraskans, working together to make a positive difference for the lives of children and for future generations to come.

“My reaction like everybody’s reaction was relief and joy. We have come too far to not succeed,” Wyvill said. “I grew up with a hearing aid and I understand the struggles of not hearing in a classroom. I don’t want other kids to go through the same struggles I had to go through.”

For more information about LB15-Adopt the Children of Nebraska Hearing Aid Act, visit https://nebraskalegislature.gov/bills/

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Natalie Saenz is The Independent's summer intern for 2019. She welcomes news tips and information 24/7!