Sens. Dominick Moreno and Lisa Cutter present a bill on eating disorder intervention to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on March 23, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
A Colorado bill that would create a new office to work on eating disorder prevention made it through its first committee hearing Thursday as supporters argued that eating disorders are an under-studied, under-addressed public health concern.
“This bill is dedicated to prevention, to getting information and resources to people before they develop an eating disorder,” bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, told lawmakers.
It comes from an idea formed by the Youth Advisory Council, which met over the summer and drafted policy recommendations for this legislative session. It was championed by council member Aimee Resnick, who spoke Thursday about her own experience with and recovery from an eating disorder.
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Senate Bill 23-14 would create an office of disordered eating prevention in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The first-of-its-kind office would create and maintain a resource bank, work to educate young people, schools and parents, try to close gaps in treatment, and facilitate grants for research.
It would be overseen by a 17-member commission.
Advocates say that prevention is paramount. While intervention and treatment can help some people, it is often costly, difficult and comes when a person with an eating disorder is at their lowest point.
Emma Warford said Thursday that she began restricting her food intake as a coping mechanism during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic amid lockdown. During a physical with her pediatrician in 2021, the high schooler was diagnosed with anorexia.
That doctor recommended an outpatient treatment, which Warford said was too little, too late. She got on a waitlist for residential treatment — a six-month wait — as her condition worsened and was finally admitted to Children’s Hospital Colorado in May of that year on an emergency basis as her heart rate dipped dangerously low. From there, she spent six months in various hospitals and a residential program in Washington, since Colorado’s programs didn’t have capacity.
“My story is inspiring, but it is also far too common,” she said during a hearing before the state Senate Health & Human Services Committee. “There are too many young people that are struggling with the same issue I did. It’s time to take a stand to treat and prevent eating disorders.”
There are too many young people that are struggling with the same issue I did. It’s time to take a stand to treat and prevent eating disorders.
– Emma Warford
She said that if she had early intervention and learned different coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of pandemic isolation, her anorexia probably wouldn’t have developed.
“We are fortunate to have more providers in our state than most states. But as you have heard, access to effective and affordable care is impossible for many people. Prevention is critical. Once an eating disorder sets in, it can be very challenging to find care and recover,” said Dr. Jennifer Hagman, the medical director of the eating disorder program at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Wary of a new state office
Research on the pervasiveness of eating disorders in the state is lacking, but one analysis estimated that about 9% of Coloradans will have one in their lifetime. Recent stressors like the pandemic could be making things worse: Adams County had 123 eating disorder-related hospitalizations in 2021, nearly double the number since 2016, Michael Ruddock, an analyst with the county’s health department, said.
“As we see increased rates of stress and anxiety among young people, disordered eating is likely to increase as well, bringing with it the negative effect on health that can and often does exist through adolescence into adulthood,” he said.
The bill passed through committee on a 6-3 vote. Republican Sen. Janice Rich of Grand Junction said she could potentially be supportive of the bill if the fiscal note, which states the bill’s cost, is reduced. Moreno said that upcoming amendments will likely do just that.
Rich also expressed concern about the number of new offices that get created by the Legislature and which often seem to have little accountability. The newly created Office of Gun Violence Prevention was criticized earlier this year for taking little to no action over the past year.
BMI prevented care
The committee also approved Senate Bill 23-176 on Thursday, which focuses more on intervention than prevention for eating disorders. It is also sponsored by Moreno and Democratic Sen. Lisa Cutter of Littleton. It passed on a 7-1 vote.
That bill would limit the use of body mass index measurements when deciding care for someone with an eating disorder. It would also prohibit the sale of diet pills or supplements that promise weight loss to minors without a prescription and direct the state’s behavioral health administration to create rules about using feeding tubes on patients with eating disorders.
Lawmakers heard from people whose BMI prevented them from receiving care for an eating disorder at one point, because they weren’t deemed skinny enough for treatment.
“It’s not designed to be a measure of the overall physical and mental health of an individual. We know those things are much more complicated to assess than by a simple number,” Cutter said.
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