IRS Allows Obese Americans to Claim Costs Related to Weight Loss as Medical Tax Deductions
People diagnosed as obese will now be able to claim weight loss expenses as a medical deduction on their taxes, the Internal Revenue Service ruled yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reports. Under prior IRS policy, only those with high blood pressure or other conditions related to weight were allowed to deduct the cost of weight loss programs. Under the new rule, people will be able to deduct the cost of "the diagnoses, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention" of obesity. While the IRS did not specify whether gym memberships or exercise equipment qualify for the deduction, enrollment and membership fees for formal weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers are covered if they are used to treat obesity (Kristof, Los Angeles Times, 4/3). But diet foods, even if they are part of a formal weight loss program, will not be deductible (AP/Baltimore Sun, 4/3). The ruling also allows those with employer-based flexible health spending accounts to use the funds for weight loss programs (Lueck/Herman, Wall Street Journal, 4/3). However, tax experts say the deduction may not help all obese taxpayers, as they will still need to meet the IRS' standards for claiming a medical deduction. Under the new rule, taxpayers will not be required to provide proof of an obesity diagnosis when filing their returns, but IRS officials said they should document their weight loss program in case of an audit (Los Angeles Times, 4/3).
The Wall Street Journal reports that the new rule may be most "significant" because it indicates the federal government's willingness to consider obesity -- which costs an esitmated $117 billion in health care costs annually -- a disease (Wall Street Journal, 4/3). Classifying obesity as a disease has long been supported by obesity advocates and debated by insurance companies, USA Today reports. Both the American Obesity Association and Weight Watchers lobbied for the tax break. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, said that "symbolically" the rule is "a very important step forward" because it "opens to door to consider obesity as a real medical problem that deserves the same consideration as diabetes and heart disease." Still, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the tax deduction will "only go so far" in addressing the nation's obesity problem. "We would have to make major changes in our society to solve the obesity problem, like banning junk food in school and building more bike paths and running trails," he said (Rubin/Hellmich, USA Today, 4/3). The new IRS policy comes four months after the surgeon general characterized obesity as an epidemic; 35% of American adults and 14% of American children are obese (Los Angeles Times, 4/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.