Maryland Could be First to Adopt Fitness Legislation

Borrowed from AHIP news letter

Cumberland Times-News
January 06, 2009

A local gym owner’s request for a federal bill to be considered in the Maryland General Assembly “makes sense” to Sen. George Edwards.

Amy Schwab Owens is co-owner of Life Fitness Management in LaVale. She said state lawmakers’ support of a modified Personal Health Investment Today Act, which would allow state residents to use flex-spending and health savings accounts to purchase fitness club memberships and equipment, would show that “we want our citizens to take care of themselves.”

Parents would be able to use such accounts for their children’s sports league registration fees and purchase home exercise equipment, among other permissible uses.

Federal efforts, largely supported by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, have not moved beyond the House Ways and Means Committee in recent years even though “it’s a bill that would cost almost no money,” Schwab Owens said.

On a state level, the incentive would be less significant “but the bonus of doing it, and the reason for the state to consider it sends a very strong message that we believe in this,” Schwab Owens said. “Every little bit counts.”

Schwab Owens said representatives from IHRSA have told her that no state has passed such a bill. But Maryland could be the first. Edwards said legislators have often talked of introducing preventive maintenance bills in the past “as opposed to waiting until something happens.”

“In the long run, it actually saves the state money because you don’t pay as much out on the back end” in elevated health care costs, Edwards said. “I think it makes sense if you can work to keep healthy up front.”

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Edwards said he and colleagues in Annapolis would consider the proposal and see if any element of it could be accomplished without legislation.

One stumbling block to a second piece of stalled federal legislation at the state level is Maryland’s fiscal woes. The Workforce Health Improvement Program Act would eliminate employees paying income tax on corporate-sponsored fitness center memberships. At both the state and federal levels, such a bill would have budgetary implications.

“When you have a slowdown in revenues or a reduction, you don’t start new programs unless it’s absolutely, positively necessary,” Edwards said. “I don’t see any new programs starting that are going to cost the state money.”

Edwards said such new programs would be those without a funding source. Such a bill could receive practical opposition, if not one of policy. Last year, Edwards said lawmakers were told by party leaders not to introduce any legislation over a certain dollar amount. This year, that dollar amount is likely to be smaller, if not zero, Edwards said.

Still, “each issue has to be looked at on its own merits,” Edwards said.

Schwab Owens said she was cognizant of budget restrictions and that this year’s discussions could lay the foundation for legislation to be introduced in 2010.