Costs to maintain cochlear implants prohibitive for those who rely on them

Seventy-year-old Rod Rossmo spent weeks planning what he would say to Saskatchewan’s health minister during their private meeting Tuesday.

Rossmo, who is clinically deaf and relies on cochlear implants to hear, is lobbying the provincial government to fully fund technological upgrades to the devices’ external portion, known as the sound processor.

Minister Paul Merriman agreed to the meeting after Rossmo visited the legislature with NDP health critic Vicki Mowatt in mid-May.

“Hearing problems are health problems. These are medical devices,” said Rossmo, who is on the hook for buying a new sound processor for about $11,000 in order to hear.

The retired psychologist says a person’s ability to hear shouldn’t depend on their ability to pay.

Nairn Gillies, left, executive director of Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, and Rod Rossmo, a cochlear implant recipient, met privately with Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman on Tuesday, June 14. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

When Rossmo received his cochlear implants in 2014, the province covered the initial device and surgery. What Rossmo didn’t realize then is that the external sound processor — the device behind his ear that sends sound signals to another device inside his head so he can hear — would become obsolete within eight to 10 years.

Companies like Cochlear Americas stop providing parts or service for old processors, essentially forcing people with cochlear implants to upgrade to newer versions. A new processor isn’t covered by the Saskatchewan health plan.

“My jaw dropped. I said, ‘This can’t be happening,'” said Rossmo. 

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said low-income adults can receive some financial support, but that other cochlear implant recipients should use private insurance to cover replacements. Rossmo’s insurance would only cover $500.

‘Postal code lottery’

In comparison, Quebec’s health plan covers 100 per cent of the replacement cost when devices are no longer covered on warranty.

Manitoba just announced that it will cover 80 per cent of the cost of sound processors for both adults and children every five years. That province expects to spend $352,000 annually for adult coverage.

B.C. also offers a cost-share program every six to seven years, with recipients pitching in less than $1,000.

The federal government covers the entire cost of new processors every five years for First Nations and Inuit people.

The executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, Lee Pigeau, said there is still a “postal code lottery” in Canada when it comes to covering upgrades and repairs of these mechanical devices.

“If I was going to have a cochlear implant, I would rather live in a different province than Saskatchewan,” said Pigeau.

Costs to maintain cochlear implants prohibitive for those who rely on them

21 days ago

Duration 2:07

In some provinces, people with cochlear implants are on the hook for thousands of dollars to upgrade their sound processors every few years to continue hearing, leading to calls for governments to cover the cost.

In Toronto, seven-year-old Daphne Reynolds will need a lot of sound processor replacements in her lifetime. She received two cochlear implants when she was three years old.

The Ontario government’s Assistive Devices Program (ADP) states that it covers 75 per cent of the cost of replacement sound processors, but with a cap of $5,444 every three years, it actually works out to less than half the cost.

Reynolds’s mother, Shanna Lino, doesn’t understand why the Ontario health plan would implant a device and then not maintain it.

“The surgery, which must have been extremely expensive for the government health-care system, ends up being for naught, in the sense that without the external device that connects to it, hearing cannot be provided,” said Lino.

“That part that has been implanted does not function unless you wear an external portion, that connects to it via magnet, that has batteries, coils, ear hooks, microphone covers, several parts.… Basically, if any of those parts break down, your medical device does not work.”

‘Cruel and unusual’ 

Heather Kessler’s son just received a new external sound processor, paid for by his parents’ work benefits and government subsidies.

An external sound processor, worn above Rod Rossmo’s ear, sends sound signals to a device surgically implanted inside his head. Without a functioning sound processor, he can’t hear. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

Kessler, who teaches deaf and hard of hearing students at Northern Secondary School in Toronto, said it’s challenging to scrape together funding from grants, private insurance and tax breaks. She wants a simpler, more accessible funding program.

“I’m aware of a student who was wearing loaner processors for seven years because it was too hard to get the money together to get his own processors.… So many things have to go just right for my students to be able to get the equipment they need to access education through listening,” she said.

Kessler can’t fathom why health plans will cover devices that allow people to hear, then rip away that ability by failing to cover upgrades.

“Why would you implant in the first place, if that was the case? Why would you be so cruel and unusual? ‘Here, you can hear. Oh no, sorry.'”

Evan Kessler is fitted with a new sound processor at Hospital for Sick Children’s Cochlear Implant Program in Toronto. (Heather Kessler)

In a statement, Saskatchewan’s Health Minister Paul Merriman confirmed he met with Rossmo and said it was an “informative discussion on this important issue.” He added that meetings like this are “routinely used to inform policy development.”

Outside the Saskatchewan Legislature, Rossmo said he felt satisfied by the meeting. He also said Merriman agreed to meet again in a month.

“I hope Minister Merriman will do what he says — and I trust that he will — which means to explore some options for funding, immediately.”

WATCH | Hamilton mother Jessica Malcew describes cochlear implant costs for two children:

Hamilton mother Jessica Malcew describes cochlear implant costs for two children

3 days ago

Duration 4:58

Jessica Malcew, who has two children with cochlear implants, describes the associated costs.

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