The IRS says it will begin allowing taxpayers to claim weight loss expenses as a medical deduction.

In the past, taxpayers have been able to deduct the costs of weight loss programs as a medical expense but only if they were recommended by a doctor to treat a specific disease. The IRS did not recognize obesity itself as an ailment that qualified for the weight loss expense deduction. 

"It's going to help a lot of people," says Morgan Downey, executive director of the nonprofit American Obesity Association. "Most services are not covered by insurance and can be fairly expensive."

The IRS ruling could pave the way for insurance companies and government programs, like Medicare, to offer coverage for obesity treatment. Now, it is considered a symptom or a precursor to other diseases.

Evidence is mounting that obesity takes a huge toll on the nation's health. The Obesity Association estimates that 300,000 deaths a year can be attributed to the disease. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health estimated that 97 million adult Americans were overweight or obese. Obesity is linked to serious health risks like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer and gall bladder disease. 

In order to take the deduction, a taxpayer will have to participate in a weight loss program for medically validated reasons. Joining a gym or a weight control program to "improve the taxpayer's appearance, general health and sense of well-being" will not qualify, says the IRS.

Diet foods are not deductible, even if they are part if a weight loss program. The IRS reasons that people have to purchase food whether or not they participate in a weight-loss program.

The deduction comes as a medical expense, which must exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. Taxpayers wishing to claim this deduction must itemize their deductions. Taxpayers can take a deduction for expenses as far back as 1998.

SOURCE: Associated Press April 2002


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