New York is the latest of a growing number of states requiring hospitals to screen newborn babies for hearing impairment. Gov. George Pataki signed the bill into law December 22 in a move that coincided with the launch of a national campaign urging all states to have such tests. Research indicates that when a baby is tested in the first six months of life and found to be hearing impaired, there is time to eliminate deafness with modern technology and get the child on a normal learning schedule.
"Because we now have the technology and the means to implement major programs that can find these children born with hearing impairments within first six months of life we can help them so they won't be delayed socially or with learning language," said Karyn A. Schopmeyer, Deputy Campaign Director for the National Campaign for Hearing Health.
Research has shown that 80 percent of profoundly deaf children who receive hearing implants are able to move out of special education and into ordinary neighborhood schools, but the other 20 percent receive the implant too late after age four, according to Dr. John K. Niparko at Johns Hopkins University.
Still, less than 25 percent of U.S. infants are tested for hearing problems. In the United States, 33 babies are born with permanent hearing loss every day making it the most frequently occurring birth defect.
When a child is not diagnosed with a hearing problem it can have significant impact on their ability to learn language and learn in general. A recent study "Language of Early-and Later-Identified Children with Hearing Loss" by the University of Colorado found that children diagnosed early and fitted with hearing aids were speaking at their age level by three-years-old. A child's ability to hear at age level coordinated with their ability to learn at age-level.
"Many professionals in both health care and special education have supported early identification of hearing loss and subsequent intervention as a means to improving the language and academic outcomes of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," the study's authors wrote.
Since 1993, when the National Institute of Health recommended baby screening 19 states joined Hawaii and Rhode Island, the only two states requiring testing at that time. The states that have enacted legislation in the last three years include: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (www.infanthearing.org)
Maine and Pennsylvania are in the process of passing a law and Georgia is considering a related bill.
"We are working with states that currently do not have universal screening mandates to introduce legislation and implement these programs," Schopmeyer said. "We have about 2000 physicians and researchers who advocate for legislation for this issue. We also work with families who this issue has effected to get their voice heard."
But critics argue the laws don't go far enough because health insurance rarely covers the $40,000 price tag associated with cochlear implants.
"The cost of the implant and hearing aid is minimal compared to long term cost," Schopmeyer said, referring to estimates that fitting deaf children with cochlear implants will lower their K-12 education cost from $200,000 per kid to $30,000. The problem for lawmakers is that the spending comes out of the health budget and the savings are in the education budget.