Today marks a particularly sad day for those of us committed to defending the rights to equality for people with hearing loss: for the first time since 1948, hearing aids have been rationed.
For 67 years, hearing aids have been provided free by the NHS for anyone who needs and could benefit from them. From today, those living in North Staffordshire who have a mild hearing loss will no longer be entitled to free hearing aids at all (even if they've had them before), and those with a moderate hearing loss will have to 'pass' an ill-considered questionnaire to determine their need.
As we feared when we first heard about North Staffordshire CCG's plans to do this, there has been a clear domino effect, with the five other CCGs in Staffordshire now looking to replicate these cuts. We are, of course, concerned that this will spread further, both locally and nationally.
Our estimates suggest that the number of people affected in North Staffordshire is 38,000; if the cuts are rolled out across the whole of the county, this number will reach 184,000.
Hearing loss was just this year acknowledged by the Government to be a major public health issue, affecting one in six of us in the UK. If ignored or unmanaged, it can lead to isolation, mental health problems, and has strong links to dementia. Hearing aids are, to be blunt, the only treatment for hearing loss that is available, and the research overwhelmingly backs their efficacy in hugely improving people's lives. At just £90 per aid, they are one of the most cost-effective treatments available on the NHS; privately, a pair will cost someone an average of £3,000. It would be absolutely unthinkable for the NHS to cut the only available and effective treatment for any other serious health condition.
Hearing aids are absolutely vital in helping people continue to participate fully in their lives. I cannot tell you how many people from Staffordshire and across the country - who have mild to moderate hearing loss - tell us that they simply couldn't communicate without them. They wouldn't be able to enjoy time with their families, have an active social life, and crucially, would often be completely unable to continue working. Cutting the provision of hearing aids is surely a farcical false economy if you're forcing people out of work.
Crucially, these cuts are taking hearing aids away from the people who would benefit from them most. Hearing aids amplify what hearing you have left - if you have a severe to profound hearing loss, the benefits are negligible in comparison.
We launched a campaign back 9 June 2014 to combat these cuts, a large part of which was a petition to galvanise local people who would be affected. As well as overwhelming support from expert audiologists, over 5000 local people signed a petition against the cuts and because of this I will personally deliver these signatures and address Staffordshire County Council on October 8. Astonishingly, this will be the first time anyone other than the CCG has been given the opportunity to discuss these cuts.
Action on Hearing Loss will continue to fight the cruel and unprecedented rationing of hearing aids: the petition in North Staffordshire is clear demonstration of the strength of public opinion against these cuts. We now urge people across the rest of Staffordshire and the UK to join us in strongly opposing any further restrictions, and to ensure these CCGs pay due consideration to the weight of clinical evidence and research proving the effectiveness of hearing aids.
To find out how you can help us fight these cuts, please visit: www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/hearing-aid-cuts.