New bill may let consumers to buy supplements with healthcare dollars

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives may soon give more prominence to dietary supplements’ place in the U.S. healthcare system. The Family and Retirement Health Investment Act of 2011, co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), would allow dietary supplements to be purchased with Health Savings Account (HSA) and Flex Spending Account (FSA) dollars.

Currently, HSA and FSA money can be used for prescription drugs, doctor visits and even eye glasses—and in some local, limited cases, supplements—but this is an exception rather than the rule. The bill, introduced in May and now making its way through the Senate and House committees, would greatly broaden consumers’ spending options.

“This bill helps to nudge the debate in that direction,” said Natural Products Association Executive Director and CEO John Gay. “We’re talking here about incorporating ways to keep people healthy, whereas too often the system is focused on treating people who are already sick.”

Americans can add tax-free income to HSAs and FSAs to pay for medical expenses, but only those medical expenses allowed by the healthcare insurer. Unlike an FSA, HSA money rolls over from year to year and is not lost.

Retailers respond to bill
Twenty-four hours after the NPA issued a press release about the topic, it registered more than 1,135 emails to Capitol Hill urging co-sponsorship of the legislation, said Gay. If the bill passed it could be a big break for health retailers.

“It would definitely impact business,” said Barbara Munford, manager of Better Health Market in Granbury, Texas. “Customers come in all the time thinking they can buy supplements with their HSA card. If you can buy over the counter [drugs] why can’t you buy supplements?”

For customers whose healthcare plans do allow HSA or FSA reimbursement, Munford will hand them two register receipts so the customer can manually file the claim. But even in the last week, some of her customer’s healthcare programs have changed, and they can no longer buy supplements with HSA funds.

How likely is the bill to pass?

“It’s not going to be easy to get provisions passed that cost money,” said Gay, noting that Congress is currently tied up in conversation about the nation’s debt. “We make the case that this saves money in the long run. I’m afraid Congress is going to be looking more at the short run.”

NPA cites studies have shown that an increase in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce coronary heart disease among people age 65 or older, saving an estimated $3.1 billion. By establishing tax deductibility for specific products through HSAs and FSAs, the legislation encourages preventive care and promotes public health.

Compromise is inevitable in Congress, so the NPA is focusing on grassroots outreach for broad support of the measure. “By generating support for it we can help make the case that our idea should be included,” he said. Gay said most Democrats aren’t fond of HSAs, so the compromise could be to just include FSAs.

If the bill were to pass, Munford said she would take the opportunity to educate her customers. “As the new HSA rolls over to the next year, we could put something up in our store along the lines of, ‘Your HSA dollars are good here,'” she said.

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