Eating disorders affect more people than you may think. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, approximately three percent of the US population suffers from some type of eating disorder.
The causes of eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder) are highly contested by doctors. Because not much is known about why eating disorders arise, treatment for them can be tricky and extremely costly.
A typical treatment for anorexia, for example, can easily cost upwards of $100,000. If the patient is in a severe enough condition, the first cost will come from hospitalization. Without insurance, this can cost up to $10,000 or more, depending on the duration of the stay and quality of care received.
Next comes inpatient treatment. A patient with chronic anorexia would need to stay at the hospital for at least three to six months, engaging in recuperative activities such as psychotherapy, medication treatment, nutritional education and weight restoration. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, the average cost per month spent in inpatient therapy is about $30,000. So, for the minimum stay of three months, the cost skyrockets to $90,000. (Remember, this is the minimum potential cost.)
After this comes outpatient treatment. This includes continued psychotherapy and medication treatment, as well as things like support groups. Outpatient treatment can easily tack on another $50,000.
You do the math. Receiving treatment for an eating disorder is not cheap. But does it have to be so expensive?
Part of the reason why these treatments are so expensive is because they can only be performed by doctors. The biggest chunk of this cost comes from inpatient treatment, where the immediate physical damage from the disorder must be fixed. This means medication to fix the imbalances in the body brought on by the disorder, medication that requires specific knowledge that only doctors possess. Additionally, cognitive-behavioral therapy is needed to restore healthy eating habits, which also requires specific, professional knowledge. (Often, cognitive-behavioral therapy is used in conjunction with medication.) When a patient is on the brink of death, they require professional care. You can’t find a cheap substitute for this process, unless you want to risk the patient’s life.
Outpatient treatment, however, could possibly be a bit more flexible in terms of cost. Repairing any immediate bodily damage is solely a doctor’s responsibility, but any continued treatment outside of the hospital can be performed by a multitude of people, depending on the patient’s unique needs. For example, some patients require extended medication and therapy, which, again, would be difficult to find a cheap alternative. However, other patients need only support groups, which can be found on the cheap. Overeater’s Anonymous, for example, is an online support group where for only $6 a day, people can discuss their disorders and treatment progress with other survivors. There are even completely free therapeutic alternatives, such as art or exercise, that work well for some people.
Because there is no established guidebook for treating eating disorders, and responses to any form of treatment vary greatly from patient to patient, it can be a very frustrating process. As a result, many insurance companies don’t cover the costs of these treatments, because the research behind them is not promising. Insurance companies aren’t asking about cost; they’re asking about efficacy. And the inconsistent efficacy of eating disorder treatments is not helping patients financially deal with their disorder.
If the insurance provider does not want to provide coverage, there are alternatives methods. Patients can participate in treatment research programs at hospitals, wherein they pay nothing with the requirement that they be subjects in the research. Or, if the patient is younger, parents can opt for family-based therapy, where the parents, with the guide of a trained therapist, rehabilitate their children themselves. There’s also places like Overeater’s Anonymous.
The problem, however, with all of these alternatives (save research participation) is that they’re even less promising than formal treatment. None of them offer even close to the same quality of care as that of formal treatment programs. Parents, although full of love for their children, can never offer the same quality of care as a qualified doctor. Likewise, anonymous online users cannot provide sound therapeutic advice like a licensed therapist can. Armchair doctors are not the same thing as real doctors.
Even though it’s worth spending the money on real treatment rather than on tenuous alternatives, there’s still the problem of the actual payment. It may be worth spending money to save a loved one’s life, but for some people, it may not be worth destroying their financial security in the process.
There’s also the question of morality: Is it right for health care companies to charge so much for their treatments? Are they taking advantage of their patients?
Although the cost of eating disorder treatments is problematic, I don’t necessarily think it’s immoral. I may be being naive here, but I think it would take an exceptionally cruel person to take advantage of someone who can’t even take care of themselves. Health care specialists may be pricey, but they’re not medical Machiavellians. In order to make money in the future, doctors need patients who will come back to them because they trust them. If patients feel like they’re being strong armed into paying for something they can’t afford, they won’t go back to that doctor. It’s long-term money-making over short-term.
The biggest reason why formal eating disorder treatment is so expensive is because it’s grounded in sound science, with trained professionals using state-of-the-art machinery in safe environments in order to provide top-notch care to patients. Although the desired results of the treatment process are not always met, the process itself always meets its expectations. Eating disorder treatments are like horse races against time, and I’d rather try my luck with a polished purebreed than with a potentially lucky mutt.
More research on eating disorder treatments is needed in order to provide better clarity on its efficacy, but in the meantime, hunting for alternative payment methods might be better than hunting for alternative treatments. And if there aren’t alternative payment methods, then talking with professionals about other (medically sound!) treatment options is possible. People, I think, are here to help, not hurt.