Friday, June 12, 2015

#AnnasLaw by Kitty Westin

EDC guest blog post by Kitty Westin:

I am honored to write a guest blog for the Eating Disorders Coalition about the Anna Westin Act of 2015(HR2515). 

I am Anna’s mom and I have been working for the past 15 years, since Anna died, to pass eating disorder specific legislation that will help prevent other families from suffering like our family has.  This has not been easy and at times it has felt like I was pushing an iceberg uphill.  I feel more hopeful now then I have ever felt; my work and the work of countless others is paying off!  The EDC has created a bill that has a good chance of passing and finally realizing the dream of fighting eating disorders with Federal legislation.

Now that the Anna Westin Act ("Anna’s Law") has been introduced, the EDC thought it would be helpful for advocates to learn how the “dream” of eating disorder legislation became a reality.  You may remember your 8th grade civics class and the educational short film “I’m Just a Bill”? [Check it out on YouTube for a blast from the past!!] ... Well, the EDC began working on federal legislation to address eating disorders just 15 years ago.  The EDC policy team has over 25 years of experience working on mental health issues on Capitol Hill and we have a wealth of experience and we understand the good, the bad and the ugly of politics.

Like the video "I'm Just A Bill" shows, developing, introducing and finally passing federal legislation is complex, time consuming and can be frustrating at times.  Before new legislation is introduced, there are countless planning meetings and thousands of hours spent flushing things out behind the scenes.  Hours of discussions and hundreds of revisions take place before a proposed bill is ready to “shop” around in Congressional offices.  Finding sponsors who will support the proposed bill is necessary, but sometimes it can be difficult.  Once a lead sponsor is identified, a new round of meetings take place before a bill is given the go ahead to be introduced in the House or the Senate.  This process can be arduous and may take many months or even years.  This process requires patience, building relationships, negotiations and accepting compromise.

Compromising during the drafting of a bill, especially when you are passionate about your cause, is difficult.  It is never easy to agree to eliminate specific language from a bill that you know will benefit your cause.  However, being unwilling to compromise can produce a bill that will likely die in committee, which is something no one wants.

A perfect example of compromise is the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 ("MHParity").  The EDC, along with our mental health colleagues and advocates, worked tirelessly to pass a parity bill that was comprehensive and included all diagnoses in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (often referred to as the DSM).  We both spoke at and attended Congressional hearings, met with Members of Congress in both the House and Senate and we lobbied hard for our cause.  However, in the final hours we had to compromise. The inclusive language that we fought so hard to keep in MHParity was taken out.  If we had continued to dig in and been unwilling to compromise, the MHParity bill would have died (aka: never passed), and along with it, the provisions of the bill that, since its passage, has allowed millions of people to access mental health and addiction treatment.  So, essentially, we lived to fight another day.

Currently, the EDC is in a similar situation as MHParity was.  As so many of you know, we all had a comprehensive bill called the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders ("FREED") Act that was first introduced in 2009.  FREED was the first comprehensive eating disorders-specific bill in US history --over 200 years of Congress.  To create FREED, the EDC held two national policy conferences that brought together patients, families, providers, researchers, education and prevention experts, advocates, and more --much like our EDC National Lobby Days do now.  At the time we first created and introduced FREED, both houses of Congress were fairly favorable to passing sweeping legislation that addressed mental health issues.  However, the climate changed in Washington, DC, and in order to get a bill introduced that had any chance of passing, we once again had to compromise.  For example, we eliminated language from FREED that would have put warning labels on diet pills and laxatives and we took out language that mandated that the American Medical Association teach medical students about eating disorders.  As important as those provisions are to the eating disorders community, we knew we had to compromise in order to introduce a bill that would be supported by both parties.

As the political climate continued to change in DC, the EDC had to once again step away and consider our next move.  The result of this process was the creation of a new eating disorders-specific bill: the Anna Westin Act of 2015 ("#AnnasLaw"). The decisions related to what to include and not include in #AnnasLaw were taken seriously and not done in a vacuum.  We worked hard, did our homework and sent our policy team into both Democratic and Republican offices to get ideas and feedback.  In addition, we spoke with EDC member organizations, individual advocates and we invited the public to contact the EDC with suggestions.  We took all ideas seriously and into consideration.  The components of #AnnasLaw were carefully thought out to make it appealing to both Democrats and Republicans.  Already, many of our friends in both the House and Senate have confirmed that they will support#AnnasLaw.

In addition, the EDC worked with our Republican and Democratic leaders over many months and negotiated several revisions before a final version of the Anna Westin Act was agreed upon.  To that end, we are especially grateful that we have bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill, which can be rare in this political climate.  Also, we fully understand that #AnnasLaw does not address every single issue that could be addressed in a bill --but we do firmly believe that the Anna Westin Act of 2015 is a very solid bill, with a high probability of passing into law (which is pertinent to helping us have a chance to create long-standing change).  We encourage you that it is important to keep in mind that our work will not cease once #AnnasLaw is introduced.  Once #AnnasLaw is signed by the President, then we immediately begin work to strengthen the bill and assist with the provisions within and the final rules (to the extent possible).  In essence, please be assured that the EDC will continue to work with members of Congress to address all of the issues important to the eating disorders community, via #AnnasLaw and other legislative and regulatory work.

The EDC sincerely hopes that the entire eating disorder community will get behind the Anna Westin Act.  I love the EDC, but/and, I am also Anna’s mom, so I come to you now as her mom:  I am asking you to join me in making certain that eating disorders get the attention of policy makers in Washington D.C.  To be perfectly honest, having a law introduced with my daughter’s name attached has brought me very mixed emotions.  I have felt extremely sad because it is too late for Anna.  I have felt anger because why has this taken so long? And, most importantly, I have renewed hope that we can get this done and Anna’s death will not have been in vain.  Anna’s law is NOT about Anna but it is about getting the attention of Congress in a way that will help the millions of people who are affected by eating disorders.  Together we can fight eating disorders by making certain that medical professionals and others are adequately trained, that Mental Health Parity is enforced and that we truly understand the power of advertising and the effect it has on the self-esteem of our youth. We know that by working together we can continue to make progress in the fight against eating disorders.  #TheTimeIsNow for #AnnasLaw.

To learn more about Anna Westin:
To learn more about the EDC: