About 30 representatives of local and state health-care institutions met to discuss California’s inadequate hearing screenings for newborns at the Berkeley-based Center for the Education of the Infant Deaf Friday.
The group, convened by CEID Director Jill Ellis and Assemblymember Dion Aroner, has met once each year for three years to discuss the need for hearing screenings for newborns and the role early recognition of hearing problems plays in the
language, cognition, social, and emotional
development of deaf and hearing-impaired
“It’s everybody’s issue,” Aroner said in her introductory remarks. “We have to cross the border incomewise as well as every other way, to ensure that every youngster has been screened, so that we can ensure that when these kids will be entering school, they are not going to have such a significant deficit that they will never catch up.”
In July 1999, the state legislature passed AB 2780, which makes all hospitals approved by the California Children Services responsible for providing hearing screenings to all newborns. The law also allocates state funding for screening tests and follow-up services. But few hospitals meet the state requirements.
According to specialists, this is a serious problem because screening a newborn’s hearing helps optimize the treatment for hearing loss. Studies have shown that a hearing-impaired child diagnosed within the first six months of life has a much greater chance of reaching the reading and speaking level of a child with no hearing loss by age two or three.
“Most people in California are unaware that there is a law because many hospitals here are not doing (the screening) yet,” Ellis said. “Fifty percent of the deaf kids are healthy kids. So many times they are not identified until they are two and a half or three years old.”
The experience of Sarah Moulton and Tammy Taylor, both mothers of hearing-impaired children who attend the CEID, illustrate the difference between early- and later-identified children with a hearing loss. Moulton’s daughter, Kirian, was about two years old when doctors diagnosed her severe-to-profound hearing loss. Today, Kirian is articulate, but she has to struggle more than children such as J.B., who was tested at the birth and received his hearing aid when he was only 10 weeks old. Thanks to the early diagnostic evaluation and the early intervention program he was soon enrolled in, J.B. now has the language of other two year olds.
Nationally, the number of babies screened has increased from 35 percent to 65 percent. In California that figure only reaches 19 percent. But according to Rick Jimenez from Natus Medical, a company producing medical devices for newborns, the number of children who are screened and don’t receive follow-up services is even more alarming. The first two hearing screenings happen before the baby leaves the hospital, he explained. The diagnostic evaluation happens later. Today, in 30 to 50 percent of the cases of newborns referred for diagnostic evaluation, there are no records of whether the babies are actually screened.
AB 2780 addresses that problem, but it may still take more than a year until the state requirements are put into practice. Hospitals have until Dec. 21, 2002 to be certified for a hearing screening program and many of them are likely to wait until the last minute.
“The hospitals are not ignoring this programs,” said Toni Will, director of the UCSF Hearing Coordination Center. “But there are obstacles.” Challenges include the cost of the equipment required to perform newborn hearing screenings and inadequate staffing. Another issue still to be addressed is the problem of insurance coverage for the tests.