Wisconsin has become the first state to require insurance companies to cover cochlear implants for deaf children.
Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill into law Thursday that requires private health insurance plans to pay for cochlear implants, hearing aids and related treatment for anyone under the age of 18. Lawmakers approved it last month.
Cochlear implants turn sound into electrical impulses that activate the hearing nerve, allowing the deaf to hear. Some insurers have not covered their cost, which can be $50,000 or more for one ear.
"For too long, too many families with deaf children or children with hearing loss have struggled to pay for treatment," Doyle said in a statement after signing the bill in private. "Today, we are making sure these families no longer have to choose between putting food on the table or providing effective and proven treatment for their child."
Wisconsin's insurance commissioner estimated last month the law will cost the insurance industry $3.2 million per year, or about 17 cents a month apiece for the state's 1.6 million privately insured residents.
Two-thirds of the cost would pay for hearing aids, which cost between a few hundred dollars to $2,500 apiece. A minority of children with the most severe hearing problems may be candidates for cochlear implants.
Doyle said intervening early with deaf children will save families money, result in the earlier development of speech and language skills and decrease special education costs. An estimated 200 babies are born deaf or hard of hearing in Wisconsin every year.
The law was opposed by deaf critics of cochlear implants, who say they are intrusive devices that undercut deaf culture.
While several states require insurance companies to cover some hearing aid costs, Wisconsin is the first to extend the mandate to cochlear implants.
The plan was opposed by deaf critics of cochlear implants, who say they are intrusive devices that undercut deaf culture by allowing children to speak rather than perform sign language.
But many parents who pushed for the bill say the devices work wonders in allowing deaf children to hear and speak and become productive members of society.
The mandate applies to the 28 percent of Wisconsin's population who are covered under private insurance plans regulated by the state.
Others in self-funded plans favored by many big businesses will not be bound by the mandate. Most government-funded plans such as Medicaid already cover the devices.
The law allows insurers to apply routine cost-sharing provisions for the procedures.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)