Monday, October 6, 2008

Health Advocate Hopes Federal Get-Fit Legislation Makes Strides

“Some might say it’s rare that passion and business collide. But that’s exactly what’s happening now for Life Fitness Management co-owner Amy Schwab Owens. And for Schwab Owens, that collision has put her on a new course as a legislative advocate for two federal bills designed to promote health, wellness and general fitness. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association is the major supporter of both bills. The Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT), would allow Americans to use up to $1,000 each year from their tax-favored accounts — such as flex-spending accounts and health savings accounts — for expenses related to organized individual and team physical activities. It would not increase the total contribution limits to the pre-tax accounts. Eligible expenses would include youth sports leagues, senior fitness programs, family fitness memberships and home exercise equipment. Schwab Owens called it a ‘no-cost bill’ that legislators should jump at because it would lead to a healthier constituency and, logically, lower health care costs because those people would be in better physical condition. The idea, she said, is to ‘incentivize’ people to work out. This takes money people have already set aside and allows them to use it to facilitate a healthier lifestyle. ‘Preventative maintenance,’ Schwab Owens called it, and ‘suited to the Allegany County region.’ Another bill targets employers as the beneficiaries. Current law allows businesses with onsite workout facilities to deduct related costs and employees are not taxed on the benefit. If a company doesn’t have the money, space or inclination to have its own facility, a reasonable option is to purchase corporate memberships to a local fitness center. Now, however, employees who take advantage of the benefits must pay income tax on the value of the benefit. The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act would eliminate that obstacles, Schwab Owens said, and ‘equalize the playing field.’ Tim Sullivan, a legislative analyst with the Boston-based IHRSA, said the international organization doesn’t see ‘many pitfalls at all.’ ‘We think that if there’s any big changes that people might have a hard time with, is that shift more toward preventative health care,’ Sullivan said. Government is spending ‘unbelievable amounts’ of money fighting obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases, Sullivan said. ‘This is kind of hoping that money will be invested before these problems crop up,’ he said. Both Sullivan and Schwab Owens addressed obvious drawbacks to PHIT, which doesn’t appear to include any oversight or regulatory process. In other words, there’s no way to ensure someone who uses pre-tax dollars to purchase a gym membership actually exercises at the gym or uses a new pair of sneakers to work out. She said someone getting a pair of sneakers using the pre-tax dollars without using the shoes for exercise, and a restaurant server not reporting 100 percent of each tip, is similar in that both would be wrong, but the latter probably happens rather often. ‘I think that would be a benefit a lot of everyday people would take advantage of,’ Sullivan said."

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