Universal Healthcare System and Eating Disorder Treatment

Woman walking on the beach outside her treatment program

Imagine struggling with an eating disorder and knowing your treatment will be fully covered.

Sadly, most of those who have battled an eating disorder cannot fathom what this would feel like. In the U.S., the state and the insurance carrier decides what the criterion is for receiving eating disorder treatment.

Even when one is lucky enough to have their treatment covered by insurance, it is often not enough. “U.S. insurers cover only 10 percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders, and even this coverage falls far short of actual costs and duration of hospitalization, outpatient therapy, nutritional rehabilitation, and other necessary components of recovery [1].”

What is Universal Healthcare?

There are countries that provide more accessible healthcare through what is known as “universal healthcare.”

The World Health Organization defines the purpose of universal healthcare as “ensuring that all people have access to needed promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative health services, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that people do not suffer financial hardship when paying for these services [2].”

Rosewood Click-To-Call Banner


Simply put, the goal is that those who need services are able to obtain them, that these services are helpful, and that they do not cause undue financial burden to recipients.

Contrary to popular understanding, universal healthcare does not mean free healthcare. There is no such thing as free healthcare, as the money has to come from somewhere. While there are numerous ways countries provide universal healthcare, the financing often comes from taxes paid by citizens. It also does not mean everyone is covered by everything, such stipulations vary country-to-country.

Relevant Research on Eating Disorder Treatment

As of 2009, 58 countries, including most of Europe, have universal healthcare [3]. While there is debate as to whether this is the best approach to healthcare, there are certainly benefits to having more accessible and affordable treatment for eating disorders.

Woman having a conversation with her therapist on a couch regarding universal healthcare

Studies show that early intervention for eating disorders leads to faster recovery and is more cost effective [1]. Insurance companies often determine the severity of an eating disorder based on its recurrence, not actually providing coverage until the problem has become more serious and needs more “intensive and expensive treatments with the lowest rates of success [1].”

Providing easier access to insurance when the problem first arises will lead to higher recovery rates and lower cost to the insurance company.

Additionally, in response to rising healthcare costs, many insurance companies will approve eating disorder treatment, but only if the course of treatment is shortened. Research has found that is actually causing more harm than good, as it is more successful, and therefore less expensive, to provide coverage for one full round of treatment. Statistics show that, “as length of stay decreases, and weight at discharge becomes lower, the need for readmission increases [4].”

The best way to provide citizens access to healthcare is a contentious topic these days, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution in sight. What is clear, however, is that the current healthcare system is ineffective in treating and fighting eating disorders, that it often places further emotional and financial hardship on those that need treatment, and that insurance companies aren’t considering how research findings could possibly lead to a more impactful and cost-effective system for all.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Litman, L. (2002). Effective treatment for eating disorders depends on increasing insurance coverage. Eating Disorders.
[2] Universal health coverage (2017). World Health Organization. Retrieved on 06/17/2017 from http://www.who.int/healthsystems/universal_health_coverage/en/.
[3] Stuckler, D.; Feigl, A. B.; Basu, S.; McKee, M. (2010). The political economy of universal health coverage. Background paper for the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, 16–19.
[4] Securing eating disorders treatment (2016). National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved on 06/17/2017 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/securing-eating-disorders-treatment

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published On July 10, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
July 10, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com