Last week President Trump signed a historic stimulus package into law. The $2 trillion plan marks the largest emergency aid package the U.S. has ever seen, and includes provisions meant to help Americans weather the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the more unexpected provisions in the bill allows people to pay for menstrual products with pre-tax dollars, using either health savings accounts (HSAs) or flexible spending accounts (FSAs). This seemingly small change marks a hard-won victory for menstrual equity that’s been long in the making: an acknowledgment by the federal government that menstrual products like pads and tampons are necessary expenses for essential care.
We wanted to help our community understand this particular provision in the stimulus package: what it means, why it matters, and how they can get involved in the larger fight for menstrual equity. We sat down with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, co-founder of Period Equity and the leading voice on equitable menstrual policy in America, to talk it all through.
Jen, let’s start with the big news from last week: The stimulus bill includes a provision that menstrual products are now eligible for reimbursement under HSAs and FSAs. What does this mean, and why is it a big deal?
HSAs and FSAs are accounts that allow individuals to put pre-tax dollars aside for health care expenses. You can use those pre-tax dollars to pay for things like doctor visit co-pays and even hard goods (such as sunscreen and aspirin) that are classified by the IRS as medical necessities. HSAs and FSAs are one way the government helps Americans save money on necessary health care costs.
That list of hard goods you can buy with these pre-tax dollars is dictated by the IRS tax code. In 2015, when I first started charting out potential policy reforms that could make menstrual products more affordable and accessible, I studied that code.
I was dismayed to see that the IRS viewed tampons and pads as ineligible, citing that they’re meant for “general health purposes, not to treat a specific condition.”
There are two federal bills that had previously been introduced to change that classification, but ultimately neither passed. Now, finally, this reform has been recognized as an important way to ease the financial burden of menstruation.
Some are saying the federal stimulus bill eliminated the “tampon tax” (the sales tax of menstrual products levied by states) nationwide. Is that true?
That is false. The federal government has no oversight of state sales tax laws. Nor does this reform have an impact on taxes that are levied. But nonetheless, this is fuel for those of us who are fighting to eliminate sales tax on menstrual products.
The fact that the federal government has acknowledged the classification of menstrual products as necessary medical expenses strengthens the argument that states should also ensure menstrual products are sales tax-exempt.
LOLA and Period Equity’s campaign, Tax Free. Period., has been fighting for states to eliminate the tampon tax by leveraging constitutional arguments that the tax is sex-based discrimination. By designating menstrual products as reimbursable expenses in HSAs and FSAs, the federal government has deemed menstrual products necessary.
How might those two arguments — that these products are necessities AND that the tax is discriminatory — work together as we continue to fight for menstrual equity?
I think the two arguments have always existed hand-in-hand. How they were being received by states is another question! As our advocacy continues, we will continue to weave these together and make the strongest case possible. States that do not exempt menstrual products from sales tax are compromising the physical and economic health of half the population, and doing so in a way that is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and therefore illegal.
Let’s zoom out from the tampon tax and talk more broadly about access. There have been global headlines over the last couple months about milestones in access to period products. Why do those milestones matter?
We’re right on the heels of two big wins around broad menstrual access in Scotland and England. These victories were a wakeup call for everybody. They are proof that the issue of access can impact a wide variety of people, even in wealthier nations. Whether it’s young people who rely on their parents to buy them necessities, refugees, or people who are incarcerated … for some people, access just really isn’t in their control.
One of the things that’s interesting about the current crisis is that we’re getting a view into what it means to be a critical player in society. Do we really want a doctor or grocer to not be able to provide their vital service, because they don’t have a pad or tampon? That’s horrifying.
Look, menstruation isn’t necessarily the first thing on people’s minds, especially right now. But if it’s part of our lives, it’s going to impact us. If we can just stay ahead of that one need for people, we’re doing such a tremendous service. We can say “We’ve got you, we’ve got this. There are massive things to be addressing right now. But this is one you don’t have to worry about.”
The people doing the jobs that are most needed right now — that keep us fed, keep us healthy, keep the world sanitized — they need menstrual products. It’s that simple.
Such a good point. How can people get involved?
First of all, be a good citizen. Be respectful and appreciative of everyone around you. We don’t know what everybody’s going through. If menstruation is part of someone’s experience, no one should assume that’s a matter that’s too small. (Also, don’t hoard tampons!)
Next, consider menstruation when it comes to your donations. If you’re dropping off at your local shelter or food pantry, throw a box of tampons or pads in. Groups like I Support The Girls do extraordinary work collecting menstrual products and donating them to people who need them. They’re in need of financial donations right now to ship all the product they’ve gathered.
Finally, get involved with organizations fighting for systemic change like Tax Free. Period. Policy matters, because that’s how we make the big changes that impact us all. Part of the reason we’re in this current crisis is because of how broken our systems are on every level: from health to economy to our democracy. We are living in this time of jaw dropping inequality. We need the activists and advocates, the legislators and lawyers who are going to get us out of this crisis and set a better course forward. Policy is integral to creating the world that we all seek.
Menstrual equity is more important than ever. Here are two ways to join the fight:
Donate to I Support the Girls to provide menstrual products to those that need them most.
Visit taxfreeperiod.com to help us end the tampon tax in all 50 states.