Sunday October 28, 2012

LEE -- Robert J. LaCosta likens his new hEARt Ear Boutique here to an outlet store for people who suffer from hearing loss. It offers affordable prices and same-day service, he said, so customers who walk in unable to hear clearly can walk out with "a new lease on life."

"This is something of a radical concept," said LaCosta, a board-certified hearing-aid specialist, who has worked in the field for more than 20 years. "We're unique in that we are telling people, 'Here we are. We're an outlet store. Come in, get your hearing checked, verify it with your doctor, and then you can walk out with a hearing aid the same day.' Where else can you do that?"

Since he opened the store at 154 West Park St. on Oct. 17, customers have been able to do just that -- by appointment only so far.

Situated behind pet-supply store, Meow & Growl, and not readily noticeable from the road, hEARt Ear Boutique is larger inside than it looks, with an administrative office, a waiting area, one room to test hearing, and another that LaCosta said could be come an additional testing room.

The space is just big enough for LaCosta; his wife and office manager Vini Cavaleri; and a part-time employee, Nancy Gleason, a Lee native who has worked in human-resources and medical offices for over 30 years.

"I would say that about 25 percent of the people who walked into the ear, nose and throat office that I worked at had presbycusis, which is hearing loss from aging. It's a big problem and people would wait forever just to get a hearing aid," Gleason said. "This store is great for people to have here."

LaCosta said that volunteering and working with senior citizen groups first sparked his interest in providing hearing care to a wide range of people.

After getting certified, he was employed at an Albany-area audiology practice, Hear For You, in 1990. Seven years later, he owned the business, overseeing its 16 satellite offices throughout upstate New York.

Looking for a change, LaCosta sold Hear for You in 2009, having grown the original one-office practice into a company he said was worth close to $4 million.

While the boutique here is significantly smaller than his last venture, LaCosta said he expects to build upon Lee's reputation as a destination for outlet stores, and the need of Berkshire elderly for easy access to hearing aids.

He said his hearing aids will sell for up to about $1,500, significantly less than the typical $5,000 to $6,000 price range, according to ConsumerReports.org.

LaCosta said studies have shown that only about 6 or 7 million of the estimated 36 million Americans who suffer some form of hearing loss actually get hearing aids.

"There are several factors that result in this, one of them being the high costs of hearing aids, and the other is the social stigma that surrounds hearing loss," said Nancy Macklin, the director of marketing at the Hearing Loss Association of America.

The association works as an advocacy and educational organization for people looking for information on and support for hearing loss.

Macklin said a perception exists that people with hearing loss "aren't as intelligent and are more socially awkward" than their peers without hearing problems.

Many are reluctant to be seen wearing a hearing aid and because costs aren't covered by most health insurance plans, people often wait an average of seven years to actually seek treatment, Macklin said.

It's a problem LaCosta said he wants to address.

"You don't know what it feels like to be at a graduation or a cookout and not be able to hear what the person is saying across from you," LaCosta said. "We're removing barriers to get to hearing health."