SAN ANTONIO – Children who are deaf or hard of hearing need screenings, tests, hearing devices, fittings and adjustments. However, for years, those services were tough to find in Bexar County for children on Medicaid.
Now, a new bill passed by the state legislature allows kids to access those services where they need it most — at school.
In 2014, changes in Medicaid reimbursements made it impossible for many local audiology providers to serve children in the program.
“Doctors start dropping out because they can’t make any money. It puts them in debt to do it,” said Texas District 123 Rep. Diego Bernal.
Bernal authored House Bill 706, which created a way for the government to reimburse school districts that provide those services for students on Medicaid.
“We’re using the schools as staging areas for the services, which makes financial sense,” Bernal said. “Because the districts already have contracts with an audiologist, they can use their own facilities.”
“They know which students will really need the help. They know which children have hearing equipment. They’re checking it every day,” said Belinda Pustka, executive director of Sunshine Cottage.
Sunshine Cottage is a center and school for the deaf that works with kids age 3 through 5th grade before they transfer to local school districts. It is not a center that can get Medicaid reimbursement, but the staff members know the importance of HB 706.
“There are fewer and fewer providers for children who are on Medicaid, especially Medicaid hearing aids. It is really a burden for these families,” Pustka said.
Sunshine Cottage audiologist Logan Horner laid out an array of different hearing aids, saying they typically cost anywhere between $2,500 and $3,500 apiece. Some specific kinds can cost $6,000 apiece.
It’s not just the cost of the hearing devices that is difficult for families. Just like kids outgrow shoes or clothes, they outgrow their hearing aids, too, and they are costly to maintain and replace.
“They need to know every single day that their technology is working, so having an audiologist in a school system is critical,” Pustka said.
She said daily or weekly hearing aid checks are a stark contrast for many families who may have been driving to other cities to get those services.