Treatment for obesity is now tax deductible

IRS ruling qualifies obesity as disease

From staff and news service reports

Overweight Americans now have a new pocketbook reason to shed some pounds. Recognizing obesity as a disease, the IRS says it will begin allowing taxpayers to claim weight loss expenses as a medical deduction.

The tax break is a start in encouraging obese people to enroll in weight loss programs, said Kristine Faber, program supervisor for the Center for Weight Loss &; Wellness in Rochester.

"Everything helps," she said.


Apart from the tax break, the Internal Revenue Service ruling could pave the way for insurance companies and such government programs as Medicare to offer coverage for obesity treatment, experts say. Now, it is usually considered a symptom or precursor to some other disease.

"It's an important decision that recognizes and supports that we need to do something about this very significant health problem," said Dr. Donald Hensrud, a Mayo Clinic specialist in weight management.

Long-term programs are the most successful in helping obese people lose weight, he said, and over time the costs "can add up."

Taxpayers have been able to deduct the costs of weight loss programs as a medical expense since 2000 only if they were recommended by a doctor to treat a specific disease. Obesity itself was not recognized by the IRS as an ailment that qualified for the weight loss expense deduction.

Tuesday's ruling qualifies obesity as a disease.

A heavy toll

There is mounting evidence that obesity takes a large toll on the nation's health. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health estimated that 97 million adult Americans were overweight or obese; the Obesity Association estimates that 300,000 unnecessary deaths a year can be attributed to the disease.

Obese people are at heightened risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer and gall bladder disease. A social stigma also is frequently attached to being extremely overweight, the Obesity Association noted.


Using the ruling

To take the deduction, a taxpayer will have to participate in a weight-loss program for medically valid reasons. The IRS ruling (No. 2002-19) allows the medical deduction for "treatment of a specific disease or diseases (including obesity) that are diagnosed by a physician."

Simply joining a gym or a weight control program to "improve the taxpayer's appearance, general health and sense of well-being" and not under a physician's guidance will not qualify, the IRS said.

Also not deductible are diet foods, even if they are an integral part of the weight loss plan. The IRS reasons that people have to pay for their food whether or not they are trying to lose weight.

While lauding the decision, Hensrud said in practical terms the IRS decision may not help many people. Only a small percentage of taxpayers deduct medical expenses, he said, because their costs must be significant to qualify.

The ruling applies not only to 2001 income tax returns, which are due April 15 in most of the country, but as far back as 1998. Taxpayers who want to take a deduction for past expenses need only file an amended return for the tax year in question.

Staff writers Renee Berg and Bob Freund contributed to this report.

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