Campaigners fear controversial rules on funding for hearing aids could be rolled out across Staffordshire.
The county’s six commissioning groups are reviewing how they fund a range of services to ensure treatments are ‘effective’ and end the current ‘postcode lottery’.
But national charity Action on Hearing Loss is concerned this could mean extending restrictions on free hearing aids, introduced by North Staffordshire CCG, to Stoke-on-Trent and the rest of the county. The CCGs insist there are currently no proposals to do this.
In 2015, North Staffordshire CCG, which covers Newcastle and the Moorlands, became the first in the country to end the routine free provision of hearing aids for people with mild or moderate hearing loss. So far, the other five Staffordshire CCGs have not followed suit – nor has any other CCG in the country.
Action on Hearing Loss also has ‘serious reservations’ about the public consultation being carried out as part of the review, saying the CCGs have failed to explain the potential benefits of hearing aids.
The charity says there is ‘clear and comprehensive’ evidence of the clinical benefits of hearing aids among people with mild to moderate hearing loss. It is now urging Staffordshire residents to take part in the consultation and tell the CCGs how much they value free hearing aids.
Francesca Oliver, audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss, said: “We have been communicating with the CCGs about this, and they insist that no decision has been made.
“We’re hopeful about this as there is now a lot more evidence on the benefits of hearing aids than there was when the policy was first introduced in North Staffordshire.
“But we are very much aware that a decision to restrict further provision is still a strong possibility and we do have serious reservations about how the evidence is presented in the consultation document. We’re sure this was just an oversight and wasn’t meant to mislead – but people without experience in audiology might come to the wrong conclusion.
“For example, the document doesn’t really explain that, for many people, a hearing aid is the only option.
“Hearing aids are also cost effective for the NHS and recent evidence suggests they can reduce social isolation and may even slow cognitive decline.”
Last year, the Staffordshire CCGs spent £2.99 million on providing 12,035 people with hearing aids.
The CCGs, who have been working with Action on Hearing Loss and other groups on the engagement exercise, insist no decision has been taken on which policy may be adopted.
A spokesman said: “We know that at the moment there are different services available depending on where you live and we don’t think that is fair or equitable. We want to make sure that we offer the same services to patients, regardless of where they live within Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent.
“Before we even start to look at options, we also want to understand the real impact these treatments have on people’s lives and that’s why we are trying to talk to as many patients and service users as we can.
“We have worked closely with Action on Hearing Loss, as well as DeafVibe, to shape the Difficult Decisions engagement with service users, particularly in terms of engaging those who may need additional communication support and will continue to do so.”
Action on Hearing Loss will be holding a public engagement event with the CCGs at the Trinity Methodist Church, in in Derby Street, in Leek, on Wednesday (February 26) at 10.30am.
The CCGs are also reviewing the funding for assisted conception; removal of excess skin following significant weight loss; breast augmentation and reconstruction; and male and female sterilisation.
The consultation runs until March 1. To take part, visit http://bit.ly/Difficult_Decisions