On a cold February night 15 years ago, Kitty and Mark Westin’s daughter Anna lost her battle with anorexia. After struggling for years with this eating disorder, the bright, ambitious 21-year-old succumbed to one of its most frightening complications — suicide. She went out with friends, came home and then quietly took a fatal overdose of medication.
Interviewed shortly after Anna’s death for a March 22, 2000, Star Tribune story, the heartbroken Chaska couple made it clear that their battle against this insidious disease had just begun. “This isn’t just a disorder,’’ Kitty Westin said. “It is evil and it has to be stopped.’’
The Westins have more than followed through on their courageous vow, winning Minnesotans’ respect along the way. Kitty Westin has become one of the nation’s best-known advocates for families struggling with this serious psychiatric illness, which has the highest mortality rate (about 5 percent) of any mental illness. The latest result of the Westins’ relentless work is legislation gathering deserved support in Congress — the Anna Westin Act.
The legislation, which has been introduced in both chambers, takes a focused and fiscally sound approach to fighting anorexia and other eating disorders. It has a bipartisan list of congressional backers, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. If passed, it would improve access to treatment, including residential programs, and strengthen training to help medical professionals spot the disease’s early warning signs. The House version also would require the Federal Trade Commission to study the impact of digitally altered body images in advertising.
In an interview, Kitty Westin said she has seen firsthand the need for the legislation’s “Three Ts” approach — training, treatment and truth in advertising. A “real disparity” still exists across the country when it comes to insurance coverage for adequate treatment. The Westins themselves struggled to get their insurer to cover Anna’s care. Former Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch sued the insurer and won a 2001 settlement.
“Everybody, I don’t care where you live, should have access to the best care,’’ Kitty Westin said. She added that she often hears from parents who say pediatricians or family practice physicians know too little about eating disorders. “The signs are missed more often than not,’’ she said.
The Anna Westin Act smartly does not create a mandate for eating-disorder treatment. What it does is clarify that the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act specifically covers residential treatment for eating disorders. It also directs the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to use existing funds to strengthen eating-disorder training.
Both of these elements are designed to ensure that the legislation gets a zero or almost zero score from the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates the impact of bills on the deficit. Supporters of the legislation, which regrettably don’t yet include the majority of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, can sign on knowing the Anna Westin Act is not only good health care policy, but sound fiscal policy as well.