More than 150 adults will never hear again without an increase in funding for cochlear implants, and that number is predicted to rise to 500 in the next four years.

Each year 40 adults receive the procedure through the public health system but 200 adults currently meet the Ministry of Health criteria for the surgery which would restore their hearing, according to figures released today by the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme.

"Without an increase in Government support the majority will never hear again – unless they have $50,000 to fund the procedure privately. What's more, based on current referral rates there could be 500 adults waiting for a cochlear implant in as little as four years," said general manager Neil Heslop.

"It is soul-destroying for clinical staff, every day, to have to tell people who previously led full and productive lives that a small increased investment from Government is the only barrier to regaining their hearing and previous quality of life."

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Patrick Dawes, president of the New Zealand Society of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, said there was an expectation there would be 200 new adults being seen each year with hearing loss that could only be addressed with an implant.

Ricky McLeod, from Raetihi, has been on the wait list for a cochlear implant since 2015. Photo / Supplied
Ricky McLeod, from Raetihi, has been on the wait list for a cochlear implant since 2015. Photo / Supplied

Both the Southern and Northern cochlear implant programmes, along with Dawes, are calling for the Government to increase funding in next week's Budget so that 120 adults with the most urgent cases could receive the treatment each year.

The previous government provided a one-off increase of $6.5 million for an extra 60 adult cochlear implants in 2017/18 but the increase was not rolled over last Budget despite increasing numbers and wait times.

"Behind the numbers there are real people," Heslop said.

"Parents who can no longer hear their children's voices, talented professionals who are now unemployed, and people who are isolated because they can't communicate. Often they will present with clinical depression or anxiety, which leads to downstream social and economic effects on them and their family."

Health Minister David Clark said those with the greatest need and ability to benefit were prioritised so more funding went to children in need of cochlear implants because hearing was critical to their learning. Government funding for children is currently meeting demand.

Adults with hearing loss were also prioritised and those with the greatest need received an implant faster than the average 24-month wait time, Clark said.

The Ministry of Health was meeting with advocates to discuss options for a sustainable answer to the unmet need, he said.

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"We have moved to reprioritise some funding in the current financial year to provide an additional 24 implants, but taking money from other services is not a long-term solution."

Ricky McLeod is one of those 200 people. He has been on the waiting list for a cochlear implant since 2015.

He lives by himself in the small North Island community of Raetihi and his profound hearing loss makes it extremely difficult for him to communicate with others, impacting on his ability to find employment.

This has led to a lack of confidence, which means McLeod spends most of his days in a secluded warehouse stripping cars for scrap metal - a place where he knows he won't have to socialise.

He has limited contact with anyone, except one friend who helps him to communicate when needed, and feels uncertain about what will happen to him in the future.

On the flip-side is Christchurch woman Nikki Cleine who received a publicly-funded cochlear implant in 2011, after being profoundly deaf for nearly 10 years.

She can now hear her children, work, socialise and participate in society.

"You take your damaged ears with you wherever you go," said the mum-of-three.

"The day my cochlear implant was switched on was one of the best days of my life. I could hear my kids. I had never heard anything my 3-year-old said, ever. I just felt so full of hope."

Now she works at the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme and faces the heart-breaking reality that 80 per cent of the people she meets through work will never receive the treatment which changed her life.

"They leave here knowing there is something that can help them, but they can't afford it.
I was so lucky. But they won't ever get it. And it happens every day, all the time."

The Minister of Health has been approached for comment.

Q&A

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is a surgically-implanted electronic device that restores hearing for those with profound hearing loss. It does the work of a damaged inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.

Why will a hearing aid not do?

Hearing aids become ineffective when the hearing loss is more than severe. Communication through spoken language becomes impossible. A cochlear implant is the last and only viable treatment that will restore hearing.

Who is eligible for Government funding?

The Ministry of Health funds cochlear implant services for people with severe to profound
hearing loss, where hearing aids prove ineffective for acquiring or maintaining spoken
language. The ministry funds bilateral implants for children and one implant for adults. The wait list is prioritised by severity rather than as a queue.

Is profound hearing loss in adults a result of ageing?

No, it is not the result of the normal ageing process. The majority of adult patients were born with useful hearing and started to lose that in childhood or in early adulthood. Sometimes there is a genetic cause, there may be a disease process, or it may happen suddenly for no known reason. It could happen to anyone at any point.