Oft a topic of documentaries and Netflix specials, eating disorders pose serious risks. And 30 million Americans suffer from one, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
So what should an employer do if one of their employees, or a dependent, needs eating disorder therapy and treatment?
For starters, don’t proactively reach out to individual employees you suspect might need help, urges the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The Americans with Disabilities Act protects those with eating disorders, which means employers should refrain from that conversation unless the worker’s performance has suffered.
But if an employee reaches out to you to ask about plan benefits for eating disorders, it’s best to be prepared with the following answers and insights.
How Are Eating Disorders Treated?
It’s important to understand that eating disorders can have devastating consequences. Patients must contend with serious psychological challenges — like body image and self-esteem. The damage is compounded by physical health issues, too. Among them: a weakened immune system, low blood-cell counts and anemia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). In some cases, they can even lead to death.
Treatments run the gamut from minor to major, depending on a patient’s needs, NEDA says. Generally, there are two tracks: inpatient and outpatient.
Individuals who don’t face an immediate medical risk — for instance cardiac arrest or suicide — typically get eating disorder therapy services from outpatient programs, which offer treatment and psychological support in an appointment-based clinical setting. Sufferers may also benefit from peer support groups.
Inpatient programs are designed for people with serious medical needs. These are often long-term programs that provide around-the-clock nursing services, medications and intensive counseling. Inpatient programs may take place in settings dedicated to eating disorders. Or they may be housed in a psychiatric hospital or psychiatric ward that services patients who have a number of mental health conditions.
Will Insurance Cover Treatment?
Thanks to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (and, later, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), policies must equalize coverage for mental and medical benefits. As a disease that has both mental and physical repercussions, disordered eating and its treatments may fall under a plan’s behavioral health coverage or its medical coverage, or both, as NEDA emphasizes.
Most (if not all) plans will cover some components of eating disorder treatment, but patients might need preapproval. For specific information about your plan, ask your broker or administrator to verify benefits.
What Should Patients Look for in a Treatment Center?
Experts recommend that patients look beyond the scenic vistas and glossy brochures of retreat-like programs and focus on the clinical effectiveness of the programming. In particular, The New York Times reports, look for programs that prioritize evidence-based approaches, track weekly weigh-ins and are accredited by The Joint Commission.
How Can Employers Support Employees During Eating Disorder Rehab?
On an individual scale, given the sensitivities of these issues and the fact that workers may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities and the Family and Medical Leave Acts, the smartest move for employers is just to be supportive. Accommodate requests for flexibility and create transition plans as appropriate to help with leaves of absence.
On a company-wide scale, employers can proactively support all employees by building chronic health support into their existing wellness programs, as SHRM suggests. According to one study, about 44 percent of patients enrolled in such programs had a chronic illness (and 8 percent had an eating disorder) — but only 14 percent of them felt the wellness program helped them address their condition.
To really help, think beyond general wellness to build in disease-specific program elements, and not just for eating disorders. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease and chronic pain are all good contenders, too.
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