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Lawmakers OK Task Force to Study Hearing-Loss Services

Goal is to review and supplement to make life easier for New Jersey’s hard of hearing

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The new year could bring a detailed review of New Jersey regulations, policies, and programs designed to support individuals of all ages who are dealing with hearing loss, the third most common chronic health condition nationwide.

The Assembly approved a Democratic-led proposal Thursday to establish a task force comprising state officials and outside experts to examine the level of services and supports now available to deaf and hearing-impaired individuals and to recommend potential improvements. The measure, which cleared the Senate in June, now needs the governor’s signature — before the legislative session ends next month — in order to become law.

The Department of Human Services, which oversees these programs, estimates there are roughly 1 million Garden State residents with some form of hearing loss. Nationwide, nearly 40 million people have some level of diminished hearing capacity, including half of those over age 50 and nearly two-thirds of individuals age 60 and older, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New Jersey, the DHS’s provides direct services, referrals to other programs, education, employment support, and more, including access to free hearing aids and other communications devices, officials said. Staff also serves as a resource to individuals with hearing loss and their families.

Taking inventory of services

But the bill sponsors, led by Assembly members Annette Quijano (D-Union), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), and Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden), said there should be a full accounting of what exists and what other services are needed. “We need to get a better handle on what we can be doing as a state to aid those who suffer from hearing impairments,” said Egan Jones.

Underscoring that need is data that shows hearing loss is a growing concern, lawmakers noted. Deafness increases sharply with age — spiking from 10 percent among those in their 30s to nearly 70 percent for those over age 60, the CDC found — so America’s aging baby boomers will mean more people with hearing issues. (The CDC also notes that one in four individuals who insist they have good or excellent hearing has already suffered damage.)

“Hearing impairment can have a profound impact on one’s life, whether it’s genetic, medically induced or trauma (related),” Quijano said. “These numbers are only expected to increase, along with the need for services, as individuals reach senior citizen status. As a state, we need to find ways to assist those who suffer from hearing impairments, regardless of the cause.”

Hearing loss and high tech

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Vainieri Huttle warned that modern technology could also be exacerbating the impact on society. “As more and more studies show, this number will only increase because of the ‘iPod generation’s’ heavy use of electronics that magnify sound well beyond recommended levels,” she said.

To better respond to this growing need, the proposal (A-4539) calls for establishing a 14-member panel, formally titled the “New Jersey Hearing Impairment Task Force.” The group would include the commissioners of the DHS, Department of Banking and Insurance, Department of Education, and the director of the DHS division that directly oversees these programs.

The task force would also include three public members appointed by the Senate president, with recommendations from relevant advocacy groups, one of whom must have a hearing impairment. The Assembly speaker would select three participants, including the parent of a child diagnosed with hearing issues, and clinical hearing specialists with expertise in pediatrics and geriatric care. The governor would pick the last four public members, with input from relevant academic and professional groups.

With staffing assistance from the DHS, the panel would be required to look at the effectiveness of existing health insurance mandates; access to medical testing; availability of hearing aids and other assistive technology; availability and effectiveness of rehabilitation programs; and benefits provided by the current educational policies related to identifying, evaluating, and supporting students with hearing impairment.

The work would need to start within six months. The task force would then have another six months to complete its report, with a summary of findings and recommendations for legal and programmatic changes, and submit this document to the governor and Legislature.

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