7 ON YOUR SIDE Health Alert: Deadliest Mental Health Disorder doesn't have to be

Fighting against eating disorders (ABC7)

She was generous, smart, and beautiful. Nineteen-year-old Leslie George seemed to have it all, until September 29, 2000.

"She said, 'I'm gonna die," Sally George recalled through tears. "'Mom, I'm gonna die this time.'"

Leslie suffered from anorexia and bulimia, starting around the age of 14. It began innocently with a summer diet but ballooned to a life-threatening condition.

Insurance covered next to nothing at the time. The George family paid out of pocket for therapists, doctors, nutritionists, and psychologists in a desperate attempt to save their daughter.

At the physical just before Leslie returned to James Madison University for her sophomore year, a doctor advised the Georges to back off.

"The general practitioner said, 'Leave her alone.' And we stupidly followed that very bad advice," said Ron George. "It was five weeks later, she died."

After a night of binging and purging, Leslie found herself in extreme pain, and called her mother for help. An ambulance took Leslie to the hospital, but in a tragic and ironic twist, she was placed on the psychiatric floor rather than admitted to the ER for a physical emergency. But her stomach had burst. She died hours later.

Looking back on the worst night of all of their lives, the Georges live with the pain of knowing that their daughter's life could have been spared had the medical staff properly diagnosed her physical condition. But for the years leading up to that terrible moment, the physical problems were the focus of most doctors, not Leslie's mental torment.

"Fundamentally, it is a mental disorder," said Leslie's father Ron, "but it's difficult for people to understand because the manifestations are physical."

Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health illnesses, with a 20 percent mortality rate, with causes ranging from organ failure to suicide. But it's one of the few mental disorders that is curable.

"It's not treated as seriously as it should be," said Katrina Velasquez of the Eating Disorders Coalition. "As if it's plastic surgery. Like it's optional."

February is National Eating Disorders month, and the coalition is pushing for legislation that seeks to enforce mental health coverage by insurance companies. The coalition collects stories from patients complaining that their residential care was denied, deemed "not medically necessary," leading to "missed opportunities to intervene." After her friend died, one patient wrote, "It's not fair that the insurance cards we carried around with us ultimately decided which one of us lived and died."

"Access to treatment is a huge barrier," said Velasquez. "Some health insurance plans cover only part of the treatment. You wouldn't expect only partial coverage to cure breast cancer, so why mental illness?"

Some insurance companies will exclude eating disorders because patients aren't deemed sick enough.

George Washington University student Katie Duman fell into that category.

Her parents had what she called the "Cadillac of insurance coverage," and yet they spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to get her help.

"It was lifesaving for me," Duman said. "It really was."

She turned to the Renfrew Center in Bethesda where she met many other women whom she related to in every way. After seven months of intense individual and group therapy, she considers herself in recovery, both physically and mentally. But she knows of patients who were not so lucky; she would see them one day, and not the next, because insurance wouldn't cover the expensive treatment.

"I don't know what I would've done if I couldn't have come here. I wouldn't have gotten better," said Duman. "It would've led to my death."

7 ON YOUR SIDE reached out to America's Health Insurance Plans to ask:

1) Do insurers feel they offer adequate coverage for eating disorders, or is that an area that is currently expanding?

2) How expensive is it for insurance companies to offer full coverage to treat an eating disorder? To give perspective, can you compare it to the average cost for another medical issue?

3) The Anna Westin Act would ensure residential treatment is covered and enforced; do your insurers take exception to this provision?

We are awaiting the insurance industry's response.

In the meantime, families like the Georges, who lost their daughter nearly 16 years ago, are astonished that change hasn't come sooner.

"Emotionally, it feels like yesterday," said Sally George. "I wake up and think, maybe it didn't happen."

The Georges started the Leslie George Memorial Fund at JMU to assist students with eating disorders; for years they traveled the country speaking at college campuses about the disease; and they've counseled many families who worry about their own children.

"If you are at the point where you even suspect there is a problem," said Ron George, "it's already beyond your ability to take care of it by yourself."

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