08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Health Care Reform Means For The Deaf

I'm deaf with a cochlear implant. I was implanted back in 1989 when I was seven years old, and I've had the same implant for over 20 years now. That's 20 years of listening, talking, and relying on the cochlear implant, and I don't know what I would do if my implant failed after all these years.

In that scenario, I'd have to fight for pre-authorization of the cochlear implant surgery, face potential denials of that pre-authorization request, get an attorney or work with an advocacy organization in order to get them to authorize the request for coverage. And I could be denied right off the bat for having a "pre-existing condition" due to my deafness.

Imagine that, being told that my deafness, which makes up a huge part of my identity, is a "pre-existing condition" which I could be denied access to care for. Many deaf and hard of hearing Americans face that same situation. They go to advocacy organizations, and rely on their cochlear implant provider to fight the insurance companies, and that takes time before they finally can get insurance approval for the cochlear implant surgery.

It's not just deaf people with cochlear implants that this happens to. It happens to deaf and hard of hearing Americans who fight to get hearing aid coverage granted by their private insurers along with reimbursement for the costs of additional services such as speech therapy, audiology, and skills development in American Sign Language (ASL). These should be an essential part of health care reform for deaf and hard of hearing Americans. For too long, deaf and hard of hearing Americans and their families have had to bear the whole cost of hearing aids, speech therapy, and development of skills in ASL.

Most insurance companies don't offer comprehensive coverage specifically for deaf people as a part of their health benefit packages. They have a limit on how often you can see your audiologist, therapist, and specify which type of hearing aid you can qualify for. So you are limited by what kind of hearing aid device is deemed to be "medically necessary" by your private insurer, not by your doctor. They are also not mandated legally to offer this sort of benefit and coverage to deaf and hard of hearing Americans, so what they are offering in terms of services is optional.

Families of deaf and hard of hearing Americans need to have continued access to family-to-family support services, ASL services and resources, speech therapy, and other related support services for their deaf and hard of hearing infants, toddlers, and children. It's why the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Act should be reauthorized so deaf and hard of hearing children can benefit tremendously from having access to needed resources. This helps make the transition for hearing families easier in having a deaf child once they have the support and services they need in order to see a bright future ahead of their deaf child.

Also, deaf and hard of hearing Americans need open access to health care as patients at hospitals, doctors' clinics, and other areas. They shouldn't be ignored, or have their relatives sub as "interpreters" when the hospital or doctor refuses to pay for interpreter services as a part of reasonable accommodations. We should contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase enforcement actions to ensure access to routine and emergency care in person and by telephone, which supports a deaf or hard of hearing American's choice of effective language and communication mode. As a member of the National Association for the Deaf, I am proud of the work that NAD is doing in working to ensure open access to health care for deaf patients at hospitals, doctors' clinics, and other areas.

Tired of having to fight private insurers in order to get coverage? Here's how you can start to change the system for deaf and hard of hearing Americans and their families by helping to fight for comprehensive health reform:

1. Call the White House at 202-456-1111, or their TTY line at 202-456-6213. You can e-mail the White House as well.
2. Find your Representative and your Senators to e-mail, call, and fax in support of health care reform.

Follow the grassroots movement at @NADTweets at Twitter!