Starving for perfection: Deadly impact of inadequate health insurance for those with eating disorders

This is the third of a three-part series on WTOP.com examining eating disorders, their impact and the road to recovery.

With treatment costs for an eating disorder ranging from $100,000 a year for outpatient care to up to $1,500 a night for in-patient residential treatment centers, paying for treatment can become another challenge in the process of recovering from an eating disorder.

Attorney Lisa Kantor, with the law firm Kantor and Kantor, said some of her clients have mortgaged their homes and cashed in their life savings after insurance cut off their child or loved one.

“Over the last 10 years I’ve probably represented close to 1,000 patients; some of my clients have died because they didn’t get the care they needed,” Kantor said.

Insurance providers recognize eating disorders are serious and can be life-threatening, said Cathryn Donaldson. Donaldson is with Americas Health Insurance Plans, the largest advocacy organization representing health insurance companies nationwide. She said there are some systemic barriers to mental health care.

“We need more mental health specialists, and more mental health specialists that are willing to be in health plan networks. We need to ensure that doctors work together as they treat the same patients. We need reliable, consistent ways to measure quality in mental health care.”

kendall baker at wtop newsroom
Kendall Baker had a long road to recovery from her eating disorder. She is now advocating for insurance reform to help cover eating disorder treatments. (WTOP/Jenny Glick)

Survivors say the disagreement between experts and insurance companies tends to center around how long a patient needs to be in costly residential in-patient treatment centers. Kendall Baker, who finally overcame anorexia after a 10-year battle only to lose her best friend to anorexia last year, is an advocate of insurance reform.

“I don’t think there is really anyone I know who can afford it out of pocket,” Baker said.

Jenni Schaefer is a fellow with The Meadows, a trauma addiction treatment center. Schaefer has written several books on eating disorders, including the best-selling book “Life Without Ed.” Schaefer encourages sufferers of eating disorders to reach out early for help. She said she quietly suffered for years and finally, through therapy, was able to challenge the obsessive negative self- talk typical of the disorder. She did this by thinking of her eating disorder as an enemy named “Ed.”

“Ed said, ‘You need me; I am you.’ My therapist helped me to understand that voice was a lie,” Schaefer said.

Both Schaefer and Baker say when they started to see friends moving on, yet they felt stuck in the same place as when they were teens, they got serious about wanting to move past the illness. Baker says it was hard to divorce herself from the negative obsessions of her disorder. But with nutrition and expert help, she was able to deal with some of her underlying problems. She then, finally, was able to turn her back on her disorder.

“I still hear the voice of my eating disorder. But now I hear other voices too: The voice of my mom. The voice of my therapist. And that critical, eating disorder voice is not so important,” she said.

The National Eating Disorder Association has a help page for navigating legal and insurance issues.


Part 1: Starving for perfection: Va. woman’s struggle with eating disorder highlights problems that often go undiagnosed

Part 2: Starving for perfection: Parents walk tightrope when dealing with kids’ eating disorders, social media use

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