Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. We hear these words on an ever-increasing basis, and they are just a few of the consequences of obesity. The statistics are staggering — more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese, and more than two-thirds (69.2 percent) are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control. We must ask that at a time when healthcare costs are skyrocketing and we are in middle of an obesity epidemic, how can we make a real impact?
U.S. Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) has introduced legislation to offer a fiscal incentive to ease the financial burden of engaging in healthy behavior, encouraging Americans to make a choice to be more active, and park and recreation agencies are critical to the solution. Rep. Kind introduced the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act of 2013 (H.R. 956), which would amend the Internal Revenue Service’s medical care tax deduction to include qualified sports and fitness expenses. The bill defines “qualified sports and fitness expenses” as amounts paid for fitness facility memberships, physical exercise programs and exercise equipment. If it passes, Americans would be able to use up to $1,000 each year ($2,000 for married couples filing jointly or heads of households) in pretax dollars for preventative physical activity fees. Included inside this definition would be expenditures such as membership at a recreation or fitness facility; youth and adult sports league fees; exercise classes and personal trainers; youth camps; organized running event registration fees; and class fees for martial arts, gymnastics and other physical activities. Obviously, these types of activities get people physically active, and the hope is that by incentivizing people to engage in these types of activities, we will see a steady decline in our country’s obesity rates.
Currently, pretax medical expenditure accounts known as Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) focus more on reimbursement of medical expenses when you are already sick or injured, such as prescriptions or medical insurance deductibles, rather than preventative care. If the PHIT Act passes, these accounts would be eligible for use inside the qualified physical activity definitions. This would help reduce the financial burden that may limit an individual or family decision to be more physically active.
At a time when Congress is at a standstill on so many issues, particularly healthcare, we have seen growing bipartisan support with the PHIT Act. This bill currently has 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans as co-sponsors on a healthcare-related tax bill. You may ask, why is this important? For any bill to gain enough traction to move through Congress, it is crucial to have bipartisan support in order to become law, and congressional members on both sides of the aisle see the value of this bill. While we are actively working with the health and wellness champions in Congress to increase support and move the PHIT Act as a standalone bill, as the conversation around comprehensive federal tax reform grows and seems more likely, we are also positioning to see this included in these tax discussions.
NRPA is also working in collaboration with PHIT America, a coalition of physical activity advocates, to help move this important legislation through Congress. “America cannot afford to remain on the current path and spend one in every five dollars of our GDP on healthcare,” says Bill Sells, vice president for government relations and public affairs for the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), a founding member of PHIT America. “The strong bipartisan support for PHIT is truly indicative of the universal view that physical activity is critical to improving health in America. PHIT will continue to gain co-sponsors and momentum going forward as Congress considers ways to improve our healthcare system to reduce costs. They will definitely take notice of the bipartisan approval of this physical activity initiative.”
You can help build support for the PHIT Act by speaking with your local U.S. representative and asking him or her to co-sponsor H.R. 956 and asking your U.S. senator to introduce the bill in the Senate. If your congressional member is already a co-sponsor, express your appreciation. Click here for a current list of co-sponsors.
Park and recreation agencies are an important part of the solution to the obesity crisis, and we need to work to combat it from every angle, including tax incentives, to prevent illness and costs associated with obesity. While fees at park and recreation agencies are minimal to many, we must help reduce any financial barrier of engaging in healthy behavior. This follows two of NRPA’s three pillars: social equity and health and wellness. The return in healthcare costs when individuals are physically active speaks for itself. The World Health Organization determined that in the United States, a one-dollar investment in physical activity alone would reduce medical expenses by $3.20. Let’s work to get America moving again and promote “wellness care” instead of just “sick care.”
Sage Learn is NRPA’s Government Affairs Manager.