FINANCE: An “unprecedented” proposal by a Staffordshire clinical commissioning group to significantly restrict funding for hearing aids has been attacked by charities and labelled the “thin end of the wedge” for wider NHS charging.

North Staffordshire CCG announced earlier this month that it was reviewing whether to continue providing free hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate age related hearing loss.

The CCG said it was seeking feedback on the proposal. Its “prioritisation process”, in which it weighed up evidence of the clinical value of the service, had recommended that it be decommissioned. The service currently costs £1.2m a year.

National charity Action on Hearing Loss condemned the proposals, which it said were “unprecedented in the history of the NHS”.

According to the charity, more than 90 per cent of people with hearing difficulties in the UK have mild or moderate hearing loss rather than the severe or profound hearing loss which the CCG would continue to cover under its proposals.

The charity said private sector hearing aids could cost £500-£3,000 per aid.

Charity chief executive Paul Breckell said: “Hearing loss is a serious health issue, which, if ignored or unmanaged, can lead to isolation, dementia and mental health problems. Hearing aids offer a lifeline to many, especially older people with hearing loss who would otherwise be sat at home alone unable to communicate with the outside world.”

Sense, a charity for deafblind people, and other charities also raised their concerns in a letter sent to care services minister Norman Lamb.

Local Labour councillor and former MP Charlotte Atkins said the proposals would hit North Staffordshire particularly hard because it had a higher than average older population. Hearing loss was also related to several historic industries in the region like mining, engineering, textiles and pottery industries.

She described the policy as “short sighted” and that it would lead to “greater costs in the long run” because withdrawing support would isolate older people and worsen their overall health.

Ms Atkins, who previously sat on the Commons health committee, said the move could be “the thin end of the wedge” for wider charging for services by CCGs.

Marcus Warnes, the CCG’s chief operating officer, said it was “truly grateful” for the feedback received so far, that no decision had been made and that an equality impact assessment to consider the needs of all relevant groups would be considered before anything was decided.

“We remain totally committed to undertaking this process fairly, and transparently, and we will keep everyone updated as we progress,” he said.