FINANCE: North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group has become the first CCG in the country to restrict access to NHS funded hearing aids.

The decision by the West Midlands group will take effect from September and affect approximately 500 new patients a year, saving around £200,000 in the first full year.

However, it was condemned by the charity Action on Hearing Loss, which accused the CCG of forcing its plans “through the backdoor”.

Hearing test

The decision will affect about 500 new patients a year, saving £200,000 in its first full year

North Staffordshire originally proposed to withdraw funding for hearing aids for people with mild to moderate age related hearing loss in June, after an internal prioritisation process weighing up the clinical value of the service recommended it should be decommissioned.

However, it was forced to delay its decision following opposition from audiology professionals and charities, and local authority scrutiny committees.

At a meeting of its governing board last week, the CCG approved a watered down version of its original proposals.

The CCG will no longer routinely fund hearing aids for patients with hearing loss between 26 and 40 decibels – classed as “mild” hearing loss.

Those with “moderate” hearing loss of 41-55 decibels will be eligible for an NHS funded device so long as they score sufficiently highly in a “functional impact assessment”.

This is a self-assessment scorecard which seeks to determine the impact of hearing loss on someone’s daily life by asking them questions such as whether their hearing problem causes them embarrassment or makes them feel handicapped.

Children and patients with hearing loss since childhood will be exempt from the restrictions, as will those with dementia, a learning disability, tinnitus, sudden onset hearing loss, multiple physical or sensory disabilities, or auditory processing problems.

Action on Hearing Loss said it “deeply opposed” North Staffordshire’s plans and that the functional impact assessment was “an unnecessary and inappropriate eligibility test”.

It criticised the decision by the CCG to approve its plans less than a week after publishing the revised proposals and without a formal consultation, and has vowed to fight the plans.

The charity’s chief executive, Paul Breckell, said: “There has been a lack of discussion around what is a clear and robust evidence base and to spend only 10 minutes coming to a final decision is an insult to the people of North Staffordshire and professionals who work in NHS audiology.

“North Staffordshire CCG has forced these hearing aids cuts through the backdoor for the first time in the NHS’s history, which will not only have a long term impact for people in North Staffordshire but potentially patients across the rest of the UK.”

When asked whether it would launch a full consultation on the plans, a spokesman for North Staffordshire said it would “not be undertaking any further consultation on the commissioning policy and eligibility criteria”.

“The CCG considers the high volume of engagement with stakeholders undertaken on its commissioning proposal sufficient to inform the commissioning policy,” he said.

“The outcomes of this extensive engagement were presented to the Staffordshire [oversight and scrutiny committee], which although not in agreement with the proposal, did not require the CCG to undertake any further consultation.”

He added that the CCG had briefed the Staffordshire County Council scrutiny officer on the final policy and had “offered to attend a meeting in the future to discuss our timescales and next steps”.