Who says the IRS is a bastion of heartless, out-of-touch bureaucrats?
Not us. At least, not this week.
Earlier this month, the IRS announced that it was reversing an earlier decision not to include breast milk pumps on the list of items eligible for reimbursement through flexible-spending healthcare accounts. The feds had initially decided that breast pumps should not be eligible for coverage under the accounts—which allow consumers to set aside pre-tax dollars for certain medical costs—because it did not consider breast milk to be a "medical necessity."
The American Academy of Pediatrics, among other health organizations, begged to differ, citing studies linking breastfeeding to lower rates of ear infections, bacterial meningitis, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, diabetes, asthma and obesity, among other health problems, in babies. In addition, research suggests that women who nurse are at lower risk for certain cancers, as well as hip fractures and osteoporosis.
Joining the AAP in pressing the IRS to add breast pumps to the list of eligible items was a group of U.S. senators and congresspeople—among them, Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts' 1st district—who late last year wrote to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman urging the change. (See "Breast Milk Pumps: Not Deductible," Feb. 3, 2011, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
Those efforts have paid off. On Feb. 10, the IRS announced that it "has concluded that breast pumps and supplies that assist lactation are medical care & because, like obstetric care, they are for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman," and therefore would qualify as deductible medical expenses and reimbursable items under health savings accounts. The ruling applies to expenses incurred in 2010 and going forward.
The AAP is among the groups applauding the IRS' change of heart. "Now, more women will be able to pass on the health benefits of breastfeeding to their babies, which include protections against asthma and other respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, and obesity, among other ailments," O. Marion Burton, president of the medical group, told the New York Times.
A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 75 percent of new mothers in the U.S. initiate breastfeeding, but that "rates of breastfeeding at 6 and 12 months as well as rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 3 and 6 months remain stagnant and low. & High breastfeeding initiation rates show that most mothers in the U.S. want to breastfeed and are trying to do so. However, even from the very start, mothers may not be getting the breastfeeding support they need. Low breastfeeding rates at 3, 6, and 12 months illustrate that mothers continue to face multiple barriers to breastfeeding."
Advocates hope that the IRS decision will make breast pumps more affordable to more families, removing at least one of those barriers.