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UPDATE 26 February 2021: The Government announced today that it will immediately invest $6 million for 70 additional adult cochlear implants this year to help reduce the waiting list. See ‘Cochlear implant providers welcome long-awaited funding commitment‘.

Record numbers of profoundly deaf adults are waiting to have their hearing – and lives – restored by a cochlear implant, but the Government is yet to deliver on its promised funding increase.

Labour’s pre-election health policy included investing an extra $28 million (over four years) toward adult cochlear implants. If implemented, an additional 80 adults each year would receive access to this life-changing technology.

At its current level, New Zealand’s adult cochlear implant funding is one of the lowest in the OECD1.

Waiting list numbers have now reached an all-time high, prompting the Southern and Northern Cochlear Implant Programmes to call on the Government to urgently fulfil its funding promise.

As Southern Cochlear Implant Programme (SCIP) chief executive Neil Heslop says, “The queue is now so long that adults joining the waiting list are unlikely to make it to the top of the list during their lifetime. People are dying before they get the chance to receive this life-changing technology.

“Many people are so desperate that they are trying to find their own money for the $50,000 procedure, using retirement funds, re-mortgaging houses and selling businesses.

“We urge Minister of Health Andrew Little to acknowledge the plight of hundreds of adults who continue to languish in a silent prison, and put the promised funding to good use. New Zealanders shouldn’t have to buy their hearing back.”

Just 40 adults nationally receive public funding for a cochlear implant every year. Today, there are 269 eligible adults on the waiting list. By the end of the year this number is expected to increase by 40 percent.

For the seventh consecutive year there has been no additional funding to address the growing backlog and demand. Cochlear implants are not covered by health insurance; either you are one of the 20 percent lucky enough to be funded, or you pay $50,000 to have the procedure privately.

Neil says his team is being forced to ‘play God’ with people’s lives and mental health.

“Do we fund the person depressed and suicidal, or the person blind as well as deaf? Do we fund the parent looking after a dependent child (who they can’t hear), or the main income earner facing redundancy or lay-off? These are decisions that we should never have to make.”

Those on the waiting list range in age from early 20s to late eighties. Occupations include nurses, engineers, teachers, bankers, butchers, farmers, factory workers, highway maintenance, business owners and retail workers.

“They can’t work, they are unable to hear their children’s voices, and are isolated in their own homes because they can’t communicate,” says Neil. “Previously part of New Zealand’s productive workforce, many are now reliant on benefits. A cochlear implant is the only thing that can end their silence.”

Northern Cochlear Implant Programme chief executive Lee Schoushkoff says the adults currently on the waiting list face the prospect of never hearing again, unless the Government delivers on its funding promise.

“Apart from occasional one-off boosts over the years, there has been no known and sustained out-year funding to give those waiting not just the ability to plan, but also to give hope that one day they will hear again.”

The onset of total and permanent deafness can happen to anyone at any point, adds Neil.

“It is not part of the ageing process, but a serious disability usually caused by disease or genetics. A healthy diet and exercise won’t prevent it. There is no pill that will improve it. A cochlear implant is the last and only viable treatment that can restore hearing.”

Both providers acknowledge that the financial effects of the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic will likely impact the Government’s planned health investments.

“We appreciate that certain areas will need to take priority over others,” says Lee. “However, the Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on other elective services, but little more than eight million a year on cochlear implant surgery.

“We remain hopeful that the Government acknowledges the urgency of our situation, and follows through on its long-awaited promise to make this life-changing technology available to more New Zealanders.”

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