Change may be evident in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 4, 2007, when the 110th Congress begins its next session with the Democrats in charge, but little may change when it comes to the fitness-related bills that ended the last session stuck in committee. Because it's a new session, all bills in committee must be reintroduced.

The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act, which was reintroduced in April 2005, has bipartisan support with more than 100 sponsors on both sides of the aisle, says Helen Durkin, director of public policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). If passed, the legislation will allow employers to deduct the cost of subsidizing or providing off-site health club benefits to employees, who would not have to pay additional taxes on the wellness benefit. The WHIP Act has 44 Democrat and 66 Republican co-sponsors. Of those sponsors, eight retired and eight lost their seats, according to IHRSA.

The change in House leadership could be good news for the WHIP Act due to the retirement of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Thomas, who was the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-California), who was indifferent to the WHIP Act, according to IHRSA. In the Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has a long tenure and a broad vision for health promotion, Durkin says. Sen. Harkin has introduced several large bills related to health promotion, one of which includes the WHIP Act. Now that he'll be in the majority party, he may have more of a platform to push through these bills, she says.

Another piece of legislation that could have a direct effect on the industry is the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) bill, which allows individuals and families to pay for health club memberships and fitness equipment out of pre-tax, health investment accounts. In the brief period of time since it was introduced, the bill garnered bi-partisan support.

Although Democrats have traditionally not been supportive of flexible spending accounts, they haven't shown any signs of getting rid of them, says Sheila Franklin, director of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, the organization that initiated the bill, which is designed to ease the financial burden of staying active.

“We think PHIT is still a good bill and has a good chance of passing,” she says. “Democrats are interested in the obesity crisis, and if we increase the physical activity of Americans, hopefully the end result will be a decrease in health-care costs.”

Fitness professionals are also keeping a close eye on the funding for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP). While the YMCA of the USA doesn't track fitness legislation, the nonprofit organization is watching any bills, such as PEP, that affect its services for children, families and communities, says Brad McDermott, Y spokesperson (see sidebar on page 22).

Waves of Change

Money will be tighter for the Democrats this session, because Republicans were seen by some people as being too free in their spending, says Durkin. Congress could return to a pay-as-you-go system, which means legislation that is introduced that costs the government money will need to have offsetting savings so that the legislation becomes, in essence, revenue neutral. That possibility has implications for any health promotion bills because while the bills will save tremendous money in the long run, there's not a direct savings in the short term, she says.

Another issue high on the Democrats' agenda is increasing the minimum wage, Durkin says. At this point, IHRSA has not taken a stand on this issue because comments from club owners have been so wide-ranging.

“The industry hasn't decided whether it's good for them yet,” says Durkin.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues for those who have lobbied for the fitness industry is that now that the Democrats are in charge, the chairs of each committee will change and so will the staff for each committee, says Durkin.

“One of the things we're telling our members about the DC summit in May (when IHRSA representatives visit Congressional offices to talk about fitness issues) is that this year it's more important than ever to get to know the new members of Congress and their staff,” Durkin says.

State of the States

While federal bills often relate to broad-reaching issues that affect business in general, state legislation often deals with day-to-day issues, such as consumer protection, certification, tax on memberships and automatic renewals. Which party is in charge of a state's legislature is less important than the climate in that state, says Durkin. For example, California has always been known as a state that is pro-consumer regardless of which party is in charge, she says.

Durkin anticipates many of the same legislative issues returning on the state level. She sees a continuation of legislation related to automated external defibrillator (AED) requirements, but perhaps with more legislatures receptive to phasing in AEDs and putting in place liability protection.

Durkin also expects to see the issue of automatic renewal/continuation of service brought up. The issue originated with cell-phone companies and automatic renewal of cell-phone contracts but often is extended to the health club industry and membership contract renewals.

Taxation on memberships is another issue facing club owners. Legislation already passed in New Jersey, and Durkin is fighting legislation in Pennsylvania.

Grant Gamble, senior vice president at the Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs, which has one club in Pennsylvania, is carefully tracking Pennsylvania state legislation to add taxes on to health club memberships. After one tax bill was defeated, another bill was introduced.

“It astounds me that they would do that when we're facing a health-care crisis,” he says. “The single most beneficial preventative is fitness, but it is constantly under threat. I think they need to make the connection and look at the big picture.”

Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Over the Years

The Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) provides grants to initiate, expand and improve physical education programs for K-12 students in order to help them make progress toward meeting state standards for physical education. Funds are used to provide equipment and support to enable students to participate actively in physical education activities or to support staff and teacher training and education. Here's a rundown of PEP funding since its inception. -Jennipher Shaver

2007

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved their version of a fiscal year 2007 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education, which included a funding level of $73 million for PEP. This level is equal to current year funding and should be sufficient to allow the Department of Education to award new grants in the upcoming fiscal year, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).

2006

Appropriation: $72,673,920
Number of New Awards Anticipated: 58
Average New Award: $300,000
Range of New Awards: $100,000 - $500,000
Number of Continuation Awards: 291
Average Continuation Award: $188,000

2005

Appropriation: $73,408,000
Number of New Awards Anticipated: 102
Range of Awards: $75,000 - $650,000

2004

Appropriation: $69,587,000
Number of New Awards Anticipated: 250
Average Award: $295,000
Range of Awards: $100,000 - $500,000

2003

Appropriation: $59,610,000

2002

Appropriation: $50,000,000

Note: Funds for this program come from the Fund for the Improvement of Education, CFDA # 84.215, also under this topical heading.

Source: http://www.ed.gov/programs/whitephysed/funding.html

State Issues

AEDs

Nine states have passed legislation mandating the placement of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in health clubs, and AED laws are pending in Connecticut, Missouri, Kentucky and Washington, DC. The legislation varies from state to state in regards to staff training requirements, the size of the health clubs requiring the AEDs and the number of devices required on site.

Automatic Renewals

Hawaii, Iowa, Nevada and New York prohibit automatic renewal of health club contracts, and many other states have statutes governing the terms and durations of health club contracts. In April 2006, South Carolina introduced a bill to prohibit automatic renewal and limit the month-to-month health club contracts to no more than 12 months.

Federal Issues

WHIP

The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act allows employers to deduct the cost of health club memberships for their employees. The bill has been introduced several times and has more than 100 cosponsors from 38 states.

PHIT

The Personal Incentive Today (PHIT) bill allows individuals and families to save $1,000 in tax-deferred accounts to purchase health club memberships and buy fitness equipment. Six Congressmen introduced the bill in May 2006, and PHIT was later referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Minimum Wage

Sixteen states plan to increase minimum wage on Jan. 1, and after that date, many of the states will have minimum wages above $7 an hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-three states have already adopted a minimum wage above the national minimum, and six other states considered raising their minimums to $6.15 and instituting automatic future increases tied to the inflation rate. During the first 100 legislative hours, the Democratic Congress plans to discuss a minimum wage increase.

Source: International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association and a Nov. 6 article in Forbes magazine