Corinne Cole displays the iHEAR device she now uses at her home on Tuesday October 25, 2016, at her home in Moraga, California. iHEAR, is a San Leandro company that offers a $300 FDA-approved hearing aid, they raised $300,000 from a crowd funding campaign and are seeking investment money. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Corinne Cole displays the iHEAR device she now uses at her home on Tuesday October 25, 2016, at her home in Moraga, California. iHEAR, is a San Leandro company that offers a $300 FDA-approved hearing aid, they raised $300,000 from a crowd funding campaign and are seeking investment money.

When Corinne Cole bought her first hearing aids more than 20 years ago, they cost about $3,000 per ear. When she bought another set eight years later, they were around the same price.

When Cole needed to replace her current devices, she decided to research her options in hopes of avoiding another painfully expensive purchase.

“It’s just a lot of money to be spending for hearing devices,” said Cole, 60, of Moraga, whose early hearing loss was probably due to a severe ear infection as a child. “It’s hard even for the people who have money, who can afford it. But what if you can’t?”

Her search led her to iHear Medical Inc., a San Leandro startup that is offering hearing aids for $300 apiece. The devices, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, are discreetly tucked into the ear canal.

Cole picked up her new set this month. So far, she believes the quality is at least as good as her expensive aids, and she finds them easier to adjust for sound.

While more than 37.5 million Americans — at least 15 percent of adults — suffer from hearing loss, studies show that 80 percent go untreated. Electronic hearing aids, which have been around since the 1950s, have undergone technological advancements. Still, many people opt not to use them for various reasons, a major one being cost.

Hearing aids cost an average of $2,300 per ear, according to a 2015 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The problem is not, for the most part, the hardware, which can be cheap. Rather, associated costs like research and development and a lifetime of servicing get folded into the price. Also, only about a half-dozen companies dominate the hearing aid manufacturing business.

Compounding the problem, hearing aids often have to be replaced every five or six years.

Insurers typically don’t pay for the devices or for many associated services, though they may cover aspects of audiology testing. They take their cue from the federal Medicare program for the elderly, which doesn’t cover hearing aids, hearing exams or the costs of fitting the devices.

“They’re expensive, and I don’t think there’s a lot of coverage,” said Mark Beach, spokesman for AARP’s Sacramento office.

California’s Medicaid program for the poor, Medi-Cal, offers limited coverage for hearing aids: It’s capped at $1,510 for most beneficiaries. So many of the newer, more advanced devices may still be unaffordable. Those insured through the Veterans Health Administration generally get better coverage for hearing aids than those with other types of insurance.

The lack of access to the devices has consequences beyond just remaining hard of hearing.

“You have individuals who have lost their hearing over time, and don’t necessarily know that. It can affect their personality and how they interact with people around them,” said Holly Walls, chief operating officer at Sertoma, an organization focused on improving hearing health. That can lead to depression, increased risk of falls and other health issues.

Corinne Cole, who uses the iHear devices, sits with her dog Calvin at her home in Moraga. She has worn hearing aids for more than 20 years. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

In August, Sertoma started a program to offer free, refurbished hearing aids to those who need them, Walls said. She said individuals who are working may be asked to contribute a small fee.

UnitedHealthcare is one of few health insurers that offer discounted hearing aids to both members and nonmembers through its hi HealthInnovations program, which uses its bulk purchasing power to get price cuts of up to 70 percent. Some members may get complete coverage for their devices.

Dr. Lisa Tseng, founder of the program, said untreated hearing loss can lead to more permanent loss if the brain loses the ability to understand sound. “Hearing is muscle,” she said, “If you don’t use it, you can lose it.”

Other companies are trying to bring down the price of hearing devices.

Audicus, a New York company that started in 2012, cuts out the middlemen and reduces the cost by selling directly to the consumer, with hearing devices starting around $400. Costco offers competitively priced hearing aids. Other companies, including Jacoti and Embrace Hearing, also have lower-cost options.

But Adnan Shennib, iHear’s president and founder, says his company is the first to offer an FDA-approved hearing aid that’s accompanied by a cheap online testing process, also FDA-approved, that customers can do by themselves, at home. The $49 process, which the company began offering in July, includes hearing tests and custom calibration of the hearing aid.

“This is a growing trend in health care in general,” Shennib said. “People are saving money by doing it themselves.”

The company, which raised $5 million from venture capitalists and other firms two years ago, is now seeking $15 million more for product development. The company plans to start mass-producing its hearing aids next year, said Shennib, who declined to release information on the number of iHear customers.

While he said there’s a place for a device that can be worn for months at a time, he said hearing should also be affordable.

“We challenged ourselves to (take) the opportunity to develop hearing technology for the masses,” he said, “instead of the 1 percent who could afford it.”

Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @vcolliver

Choosing a hearing aid

About 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. If you’re considering buying a hearing aid, here are some tips:

Understand the product: There are several different types of hearing devices, from analog and digital hearing aids to “personal sound amplifiers,” or over-the-counter listening devices, and other products that are not actual hearing aids. Different styles of hearing aids are designed for different types of hearing loss.

Select a hearing aid provider: You may be evaluated by a doctor, audiologist or hearing-aid specialist. Check to make sure the provider’s license is current, or look for complaints.

Shop wisely:The Hearing Loss Association of America offers a checklist to help with the buying process.

Source: Consumer Reports; Chronicle research