The Anna Westin Act: Monumental Legislation Fighting Eating Disorders

Published December 13, 2016.

When I was in high school and college, the media was gradually becoming aware of the phenomenon of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which disproportionately affected young women and girls. The prevalence of eating disorders has increased dramatically since then.


Researchers now estimate that in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorder at some time in their life. As the mother of a young daughter, I’m all too aware that girls increasingly express concern about their weight and size at an early age. Surveys of elementary school girls (between ages 6 and 12) have found that between 40 and 60 percent of them are dissatisfied with their bodies, which in all too many cases leads to clinically disordered eating attitudes and behaviors.


That’s why the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama signed into law today, is cause for further celebration. The legislative package, championed by the Republican Main Street Partnership’s Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), included the Anna Westin Act, which is the first eating disorders legislation with bipartisan sponsorship to pass Congress in a decade. It was introduced in the House by Main Street’s Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and in the Senate by Main Street’s Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), with the original cosponsorship of Main Street’s Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).


The legislation is named for Anna Westin, who took her own life at age 21 as a direct result of the anorexia she had developed at age 16. When she returned home from college in her sophomore year, she had lost over a third of her body weight, and her doctor recommended that she be hospitalized immediately. However, her parents’ insurance company refused to cover the inpatient treatment that she needed on the grounds that anorexia was not an illness. Too many insurance companies are unaware that eating disorders are actually among the deadliest of mental illnesses, claiming the lives of as many as 20 percent of those who suffer from them — tragically including Anna.


The Anna Westin Act clarifies the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008, ensuring that treatment for all mental disorders, including eating disorders, receive equal treatment with other health issues. The measure will also help prevent eating disorders by using existing funds from the National Institute of Mental Health and SAMHSA to train health professionals and school personnel to identify the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and intervene at an early stage, when recovery is easiest. No additional funds will be needed to enact this legislation.


“Many years of hard work are represented with today’s passage of the Anna Westin Act,” Capito wrote in a statement about the bill’s passage. “This legislation will have a profound impact on the millions of Americans experiencing eating disorders and will help ensure they will not be denied access to the same mental health services as those facing other types of illnesses. I am proud of the role I was able to play in passing this bill, and thank the family of Anna Westin, who the bill is named for, for all they have done in support of this groundbreaking legislation.”