With the recent passage of the House version of the 2022 defense authorization bill, military health advocates are celebrating two provisions that could potentially change how eating disorders are handled by the Pentagon.
One piece of the legislation greatly expands the access to health care for service members’ dependents who suffer from eating disorders. The language expands the age limit for TRICARE dependents’ eating disorder treatment for 20-years-old to 64.
“Once dependents hit age 20, they’re not able to get that high level of care any longer,” Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer at The Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy and Action, told Federal News Network. “That’s very different than a substance use disorder, which is another issue that that often gets discussed. If you are over 20 and in a military family and you need a higher level of care, you are able to access that if you have substance use disorder, but if you have an eating disorder you’re not. There’s a real differential in treatment access.”
The other provision provides training in eating disorder identification, intervention and referral for all military health professionals providing direct care.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that unfortunately impact service members at higher rates than the general public due to risk factors unique to their military experience,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.). “My amendment requires that all medical professionals who provide direct care services to patients under the military health system receive a mandatory training on how to screen, intervene, and refer patients to treatment for eating disorders. This training is needed to ensure that affected service members get the treatment they need.”
The most recent numbers found a 26% increase in the diagnosis of eating disorders in the military from 2013 to 2016.
Lampert said the prevalence of eating disorders is compounded in the military by strict weight and physical standards.
“This difficult situation where military members are trying to do the right thing or trying to meet the fitness requirements,” she said. “They’re under very stressful situations. They end up with an eating disorder. There’s a significant amount of stigma to them reaching out for care and asking for help. If they do reach out for care and ask for help, there’s a significant issue also with what will happen when they reach out for help. We know that despite the fact that we have these high rates of eating disorders among military populations, there isn’t the adequate response on the part of the military on the part of the hearer of that information.”
Lampert added that there are still certain areas in the military where eating disorders need to be addressed.
“The next step is pretty clear to us and it really revolves around TRICARE,” she said. “Right now, there are not enough eating disorder treatment facilities that are contracting with TRICARE that would enable us to actually efficiently treat military members and their families that need eating disorder treatment. We really need to increase the number of centers that are contracted with TRICARE in order to be able to provide the treatment that military members and their family members would need.”