After a 17-year battle, Kitty Westin and her family are able to make sure health insurance companies recognize and cover the needs of those who have an eating disorder.
The Anna Westin Act was a part of a bigger bill called the 21st Century Cures Act and was signed by President Barack Obama in December.
In addition to extended health care coverage for mental illnesses, the bill also increases education and training on eating disorders, provides $1 billion over two years for grants for opioid abuse treatment and prevention activities and $5 billion in funding for research into cures for Alzheimer’s, cancer and other diseases.
The act was named after Kitty’s daughter, 1997 Chaska High School graduate Anna Westin, who took her own life at the age of 21 following a five-year battle with anorexia.
Kitty was one of a handful of people who were able to meet with the president when the Cures Act was signed into legislation.
“I was able to thank the president for signing the bill into law. As soon as I said my daughter died, he gave me a hug and he listened so intently. You feel like you’re the only one in the room. It was only 30 seconds but I came away feeling really lucky and grateful to all the people who made this happen,” Kitty said.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) worked closely with Kitty and was able to include the Anna Westin Act into the Cures Act. The bill passed Congress with bipartisan support, Kitty said.
“It … includes the Anna Westin Act, my bill to help the millions of Americans suffering from eating disorders get the help they need,” Klobuchar stated in a press release. “Anna’s mom, Kitty, lives in Minnesota and has been a national leader in the effort to combat eating disorders. I was so happy that Kitty was able to be at the signing ceremony today.”
Kitty became an advocate for eating disorders after her daughter died.
Her health insurance provider refused to pay for hospital visits Anna needed until it “certified” that she had a mental illness. Though her body temperature and heart rate dropped and she looked physically ill, Kitty’s provider would not pay, she recalled.
While help did not come for her daughter, Kitty believes that advocacy and raising awareness helps the family cope with her death.
“We had the ultimate outcome. For us it was making sure that people don’t suffer like our daughter did or like we have,” she said. “It’s really helped us cope with the death of our daughter knowing there’s some good that came from that. It’s helped us all heal.”
One particular line from Anna’s journal drove Kitty into helping others: “May your dreaming never end and your voice never die.”
“I really took that as instructions, we could dream about the future and we have to use our voices to make it happen,” Kitty said.
Kitty and her family went on to open the state’s first residential treatment center for eating disorders in Chaska, in a townhome located off of Hundertmark Road. Her family named it the Anna Westin House.
The family opened the treatment center in 2001 because they believed it was what Anna needed to recover.
“She needed residential care, but there wasn’t any, we were battling for her to be in in-patient care (at the hospital),” Kitty said. “The logical thing would have been for her to go into residential care, to stabilize and work on the mental health and emotional piece of the eating disorder.”
Residential care doubled as the house moved from Chaska to St. Paul and grew from eight beds to 16 after the Anna Westin House merged with another eating disorder advocacy group called the Emily Program Foundation.
The merge allowed Kitty to focus working on drafting and passing laws to protect those who have eating disorders.
“When Anna died it felt like my world blew up. It’s almost an unspeakable event,” she said. “I realized though early on that by telling that story and being really open and honest about it and not having any shame that she had a mental illness, that there was power in that.”
Kitty helped found the National Eating Disorders Coalition and currently sits on its board. It has grown to include 50-member organizations, up from six when it first started. The coalition helps give eating disorder advocates a united voice, Kitty said.
“For our family it was really personal. To me it felt like the ending of a really long, hard, painful, frustrating, messy journey. The reality is the work isn’t done. There’s so much we have to do,” Kitty said.
“In January, when we have a new Congress, we will get right back at it,” she continued. “For now, I’ve allowed myself to bask in this victory and feel really positive in this.”