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First introduced in Congress 11 years ago, the PHIT Act would let you pay for tri-related expenses with pre-tax dollars. Will it ever pass?
The Personal Health Investment Today Act, more commonly known as the PHIT Act, made its debut in Congress in 2006. The legislation would let Americans use their pre-tax medical accounts, including FSAs and HSAs, to pay for physical activity expenses like gym memberships and sports equipment. The PHIT Act was reintroduced in Congress on March 1, 2017, and this time its biggest advocates think it truly has a shot at passing. If it does, it would be a boon to triathletes.
The PHIT pitch is pretty straightforward: America is terribly inactive. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 80 percent of us don’t get the recommended minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity and two muscle-strengthening sessions a week.
PHIT Act advocates say one of the biggest barriers to participation is cost, particularly when it comes to getting kids involved in sports. Spending pre-tax money could save parents and adult athletes 20 to 30 percent on the cost of equipment, coaching and other related expenses. So that’s one half of the argument. But why would Congress care about helping you buy a bike?
“Eight of the top 10 diseases in the United States are related to physical inactivity,” including mental health, diabetes and heart disease, says Tom Cove, CEO and president of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The SFIA is a trade association that conducts research and advocates for public policies related to physical fitness, and it’s one of the PHIT Act’s biggest champions. Right now we can only spend FSA and HSA dollars on treatment after we’re sick, Cove says. If we can invest in our health earlier, the government can save billions annually in overall healthcare costs. “So there’s a personal side, a societal side in regards to cost, then there’s a bigger healthcare question,” Cove says.
Cove is hopeful that after more than a decade of reintroductions to different Congresses, the PHIT Act will finally pass this year. “It’s both a health piece of legislation and a tax piece of legislation,” he says. “Both of these are top priorities of the new Congress and we have top leadership in support” from both parties, including senators John Thune (R-SD) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Also in the PHIT Act’s favor: It has a score, or a congressional estimate on how much money Americans will spend on fitness and sports participation during the course of the next 10 years. Any federal legislation which impacts taxation must have a score, and the PHIT Act received its score—of $2.5 billion—in 2014, so Congress can more easily act on it if they find the right moment to push it through; should it pass, Cove says, it’ll likely do so packaged with other health or tax items rather than on its own.
The PHIT Act would let individuals set aside up to $1,000 in pre-tax dollars, and families up to $2,000, to spend on physical fitness-related expenses. Yes, a big part of the reason SFIA members like Adidas and Nike are behind it is because they want kids to be able to participate in youth sports. But anyone who can afford to set aside part of their monthly paycheck for this purpose benefits.
“Triathletes will be huge beneficiaries,” Cove says, “because virtually any triathlete will spend that much money in a year on eligible expenses.” Those expenses include equipment, like your wetsuit, bike and cycling shoes, as well as gym memberships and money paid “for participation or instruction in a program of physical exercise or physical activity.” The language is currently open to interpretation, but that means coaching and entry fees would likely be included.
“It’s not the answer, end-all-be-all,” Cove says. “But it’s balanced, reasonable, it’s not overwhelming, and there’s a momentum [in Congress] around taking positive steps” toward better health.