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Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses, affecting 24 million Americans. They lead to numerous severe and chronic health problems, and without treatment, up to 20% of people with serious eating disorders will die. The challenge lies in family, friends, and physicians to recognize this secretive disorder, and catch it before the illness has set its roots.

If doctors were appropriately trained and more perceptive to the subtle symptoms of disordered eating, they would be better equipped to intervene early. Early intervention leads to a more successful treatment outcome, alleviates critical health issues, decreases the significant financial and emotional burdens of treatment on families, and has the potential to save lives.

The Times Union, in Albany, New York, reported on a vitally important bill sponsored by Sen. Shirley Huntley and Assemblyman Peter Rivera. This bill would mandate New York Physicians to receive training on the early recognition of eating disorders by requiring physicians and physician’s assistants, who have not received education on eating disorders, to take a one- hour free online course. This is quite a simple undertaking for physicians and such a small piece of their time, for something that may protect many lives.

Body image author Melinda Hutchins comments about a recent study that reported more than half a million teenagers suffer from an eating disorder, most commonly binge eating, a condition described as compulsive eating without the purging associated with bulimia. See “Eating Disorders: the Recovery Process is Key.”

Hutchins cites sobering statistics from the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy and Action: 20 percent of people with eating disorders will eventual die from the disease. For people suffering from anorexia, one-third will recover after an initial episode, one-third will experience a relapse, and one-third will suffer from chronic deterioration and multiple re-hospitalizations.

“Recovery is never a linear process; it involves making errors and is more a case of two steps forward, one step back,” treatment facility manager Lydia Jade Turner told Hutchins.

The new federal health care legislation helps American consumers generally by equalizing our rights and responsibilities. By requiring insurance coverage for all, it will spread risk and provide a safety net for consumers.

States like Massachusetts and New York, known for their outstanding medical care, and driven by broader social concerns of non-profit advancement of health care and protecting those suffering from wide-spread illnesses like cancer and AIDS (as well as the reality of high costs of medical care), have been trailblazers in taking closer steps toward universal health insurance coverage for their citizens, including those with pre-existing conditions. By doing so, they’ve begun to address the problem of the “death spiral,” where costs of insurance get so high that healthier people opt out of insurance, leaving a smaller pool of sick, more desperate people who must keep their insurance, but are forced to pay ever-increasing, often prohibitive premiums. The healthier people don’t want to pay high premiums to subsidize the sicker people, so they drop their coverage. The insurance companies in turn lose premium revenue from these healthier consumers, and hike up the premiums to those left in the customer pool. See “New York Offers Costly Lessons on Insurance,” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/nyregion/18insure.html?src=mv.

Recognizing the successes in Massachusetts and New York, the Federal government’s new health law widens the consumer pool and requires everyone to get insurance coverage. If people refuse, they’ll be fined. Though we won’t see this penalty phased in until 2014-16, the threat of a fine (ranging from $695 for an individual to over $2000 for a family), will nudge people into obtaining insurance coverage. The more people who purchase health insurance, the more diverse the pool of insureds, making for a broader, generally healthier pool, with shared risk, lower incidences of sickness, and lower overall costs (per head).

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