Is the IRS stepping its toes even further into the breastfeeding versus bottle fray?
This week, the IRS announced that, effective as of the 2010 tax year, mothers who breastfeed can get a tax break. Under the change in policy, taxpayers may now use pretax dollars in their FSAs (flexible spending accounts) to cover the cost of breastfeeding supplies. Taxpayers without FSAs may count the cost of breastfeeding supplies towards their deductible medical expenses if they itemize on Schedule A.
Breastfeeding supplies, or “supplies that assist lactation” (like you expected the IRS not to be as technical as possible here) would normally include breast pumps, bottles and pads. But before you rush right out to buy a breast pump for fun, be aware that the IRS wants you to use it, warning, “taxpayers should assess whether an item is used primarily for extracting milk or for other purposes.” Eww. I don’t even want to think about what kinds of “other purposes” the IRS might be thinking about.
Breastfeeding advocates, of course, applauded the ruling. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman last year (downloads as a pdf) asking the IRS to reverse their original position that breastfeeding supplies were not medical devices (downloads as a pdf) nor did they provide a medical benefit. In their letter, the AAP cited various health benefits related to breastfeeding including evidence that show that “children who are breastfed have lower rates of mortality, meningitis, some types of cancers, asthma and other respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, ear infections, juvenile diabetes, some chronic liver diseases, allergies and obesity.”
After consideration, the IRS reversed its position. The reversal did not specifically address the health benefits of breastfeeding but rather focused on classifying the equipment associated with breastfeeding as “for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman.” Pure poetry, no?
Of course, for all that I make fun of the IRS’ carefully worded statements, there’s no doubt that words matter. The IRS isn’t being technical for the sake of being technical. Nor are they being political, despite our current climate. They’re being guarded for a reason: as recently as last year, they classified infant formula as food and therefore, not a medical expense. Clearly, then, they’re not going to rule that breast milk is considered nutrition and therefore, deductible, when infant formula is not. By classifying the related equipment as medical expenses, they seem to be circumventing that whole argument.
But what of the supplies? Here’s where I sense a challenge in the future… You see, I was a breastfeeding mom. I know how expensive pumps and periphery can be and I completely applaud the IRS ruling, especially on behalf of working mothers everywhere (not that I’m saying that pumping issues are restricted to working mothers). However, while classifying bottles as breastfeeding supplies makes sense (you can’t store expressed breast milk in your pocket), it feels discriminatory against those moms who don’t breastfeed. Infants who are fed formula require bottles, too, as it’s still a necessity. Those babies aren’t feeding out of troughs or using straws: they’re still using bottles. Why is it okay on the one hand and not on the other?
I understand that allowing bottles associated with infant formula to be considered medical expenses can lead down a slippery slope. It becomes very easy to jump to the next thing: why not teething biscuits? Or iron-enriched oatmeal?
Again, I’m glad to see this ruling. I think that the IRS did the right thing and I think they were thoughtful about their position. But I’m not so sure it’s settled.