WASHINGTON — In a moment she had worked toward for five years, Senator Elizabeth Warren stood in a Walgreens store in the nation’s capitol on Wednesday and proudly held a box of hearing aids that now could be purchased without a prescription.
“I am so happy to be here,” said the Massachusetts Democrat, who coauthored the 2017 law that led to the change and then pushed ever since for its implementation. “This is government when it works best because it works for the people.”
As of Monday, adults with mild to moderate hearing loss are able to buy hearing aids over the counter at pharmacies and retail stores. Minors and those with severe hearing loss will still need prescriptions. The rule change by the Food and Drug Administration is expected to reduce costs and greatly expand access to hearing aids for people with untreated hearing loss. The White House estimates that the average cost of the devices could be reduced by as much as $3,000 per pair.
For Warren, it’s been a long time coming.
She teamed with Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in 2017 to sponsor a bill that directed the FDA to develop rules to allow consumers to purchase hearing aids without going through a licensed specialist. The measure was included in broader FDA legislation that passed Congress and was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.
But it took a while for the FDA to act and Warren kept pushing. Last year, President Biden ordered the FDA to set rules that would enable over-the-counter sales. The final regulations were announced in August and Biden administration officials joined Warren at the event Wednesday to celebrate.
“The president said at the very beginning of his tenure as president, we’re gonna lower costs and provide better benefits for more Americans,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, which oversees the FDA. “Today we’re telling Americans — and Senator Warren’s holding proof — that the price of hearing aids is going down.”
Warren said that she and Grassley repeatedly pressed federal officials to establish regulations needed to put the change into effect. She expressed her disappointment that it took so long and could have helped people earlier.
“We’re on the outside once we’ve passed the law in Congress, and all we can see is year by year by year go by,” Warren said. “It felt like no one was making this a priority.”
Robert Califf, who heads the FDA, said Warren made it clear during his confirmation process that expanding hearing aid access was a high priority. Becerra added that, “Rob wasn’t the only target of Senator Warren.”
“I have been getting calls from the senator and others for quite some time,” Becerra said. “But you know what, it was the right type of push. That’s what you expect of your advocates. They were advocating and they did the right thing.”
Califf said he hoped to continue making health care more transparent and accessible by removing middlemen.
“On the one hand, we want consumers to do better,” he said. “And on the other hand, we want you to have access to the specialist that you need when you need them, but not when you don’t need them.”
Warren’s push for over-the-counter hearing aids ties directly to her longstanding effort to make the economy work better for average Americans. On Wednesday, she praised Biden for a change that she asserted will promote more competition in a market that has been dominated by a handful of companies.
“Today is the day that monopolies lose and American consumers win,” she said.