Family Matters

Breast-Feeding Gets a Nod from the IRS: Pumps are Deductible

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Nursing mothers, rejoice: Uncle Sam will now subsidize your breast pumps. For years, the Internal Revenue Service has insisted that breast pumps — relied upon by many working moms so that their babies can eat when they’re not around— be considered feeding equipment not worthy of a tax deduction. But last week, the IRS reversed itself, newly classifying breast pumps as tax-deductible medical devices.

The change, which the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) backed, means that nursing mothers will be able to write off their pricey pumps. (They can use dollars from pre-tax flexible spending accounts [FSA]; those without FSAs can deduct the cost if their total medical expenses are more than 7.5% of adjusted gross income.) (More on Time.comWhat’s a Tax-Deductible Health Expense?)

In typical IRS bureaucratese, the language of the reversal was far from poetic. But it did the trick. In November, U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, a congressman from Michigan, wrote a joint letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman requesting the agency reconsider the status of breast pumps, which he called “essential medical expenses that are vital to improved childhood health.” At the end of January, Shulman replied:

After reviewing this matter, we have concluded that breast pumps and supplies that assist lactation are medical care under section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) because they are for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman.

“Overall it’s a small monetary amount, but it’s important that the government has recognized the value breast-feeding has,” says Ashley Boyd, a campaign director for MomsRising, a grassroots organization of more than 1 million members that advocates for family-friendly policies. “It struck people as a fairness issue. In light of the government’s strong push and support for breast-feeding, it seemed off-kilter that the IRS would be so out of sync.”

Just last month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued her first “call to action,” a public statement designed to rally people around a public health issue. Her topic of choice? The importance of supporting breastfeeding women. (More on Time.comBreast-Feeding: It Takes a Village to Help Moms Succeed)

The IRS switcharoo is the latest piece of good news for mothers who return to work and want to continue breast-feeding. A year ago, the new Affordable Care Act included a provision entitled “Break Time for Nursing Mothers,” which requires employers to give nursing employees reasonable break times to express milk and a private place that’s not a bathroom in which to do so.

Getting some assistance with paying for pumps is welcome news since the most effective, top-of-the-line pumps can run hundreds of dollars. It may even encourage more women to breastfeed longer. The AAP advises women to breastfeed exclusively for six months and to continue nursing at least until baby turns 1, but not many women take their recommendation. Only 43% of U.S. mothers are still nursing at six months, according Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (More on Why Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations)

But breast-feeding for longer periods of time could save money — lots of it — because breast-fed babies are healthier. Cost savings could add up for companies that offer employer-subsidized heath insurance benefits. Last year, a study in the journal Pediatrics concluded that if 4 of 5 U.S. women could follow the AAP guidelines and breast-feed exclusively for six months, it would save $10.5 billion. There’s a long way to go to achieve that goal:  although 75% of women initiate breast-feeding, only 13% are persevering by six months.

Those eager to see the IRS change in print can check out the next revision of Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses, certain to be thrilling bedside reading material.