We've all heard about the dangers of inactivity. Turning to screens — smartphones, TVs, video games, tablets — during our free time only compounds the problem. According to PHIT America, kids in the United States as a group are ranked 47th among their cohorts in 50 developed countries in terms of fitness, and only 7 percent of U.S. kids meet standards for activity set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, our kids — all of us, in fact — need to get off our butts and move our bodies.
The Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act aims to enable that, and while it took a lot of legwork and more than a decade for the bill to gain traction in Washington, there are finally signs the little bill that could is building some momentum. Specifically, the PHIT Act, which would allow every American household to use up to $2,000 of their Healthcare Flexible Spending Account toward things like health club membership dues, youth sports fees and some sports equipment, recently passed the House of Representatives and is now headed to the Senate. It's the kind of bill that seems like the perfect bipartisan legislation — a tax break that would potentially prompt some 80 million Americans to be proactive in maintaining their own health. So what's been the hang-up, and where do we go from here?
Jim Worthington, chair of IHRSA and owner of Newtown Athletic Club, is a strong supporter of the PHIT Act. He says the bill initially suffered from the same partisan divide that most new legislation has seen given the current political climate. "It kind of languished for years, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that you had a president who was Democratic and a Republican House, and there just wasn't enough support for it."
Worthington says IHRSA, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and a number of other supporters and partners that are part of the PHIT America coalition, have recently given the bill a little nudge. "PHIT has always made sense. The reality is that to control costs you have to be proactive and not reactive, and the way our healthcare system is set up, we're treating illness instead of preventing illness," Worthington says. "PHIT prevents illness. I mean that's our life's work. That's why we're in the industry — to make people's lives better."
PHIT America is only now gearing up for a final push, as the bill heads to the Senate ahead of contentious midterm elections in November at a time when there is a lot at stake for both Democrats and Republicans. "There's probably going to be very little, if any, legislation passed before the midterms because nobody wants to give the other side a win," Worthington says, noting that while the PHIT Act's passage in the House was overwhelmingly bipartisan, the bill will need 60 votes in the Senate, which will be a lot harder to secure. "What we're hoping to do is reach out to the senators and get their support for it so that if it doesn't get done before the midterms, we would get a vote after in the lame-duck session. We're hoping then we can get it attached to something at that time."
To be sure, the PHIT Act would be a boon for the sports, fitness and recreation industries, attracting millions of new dollars in revenue. But the bill itself is about bettering lives through improved health and reduced spending on healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, an investment of $1 in physical activity in the United States leads to $3.20 in medical cost savings.
Worthington says it's time to wake up and listen to that part of the message. "When the federal government comes in and basically says that we're going to provide you tax credits to incentivize Americans to live healthier lives, they're confirming that what we do is important and that our life's work is validated," he says. "There's no excuse for the people in our industry not to reach out to their senators and their contacts. This is a big deal. I mean, you don't know who might know the senator in Idaho who might be the deciding vote to get this done. So everybody needs to get involved in this. The effects of getting this passed are going to be so great. To be this close and not get this thing passed would be a real shame."
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What’s Next for the PHIT Act?" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.