How to pay for your child’s eating disorder treatment

Eating disorders are chronically underfunded, both from a research and a treatment standpoint. Many healthcare providers are ill-equipped to diagnose and treat eating disorders, and many insurance companies will severely limit treatment or deny treatment altogether. This is seriously depressing, especially since we know that eating disorders that are caught and treated early are less likely to turn into more serious forms that can require even more extensive (and expensive!) care.

There are several organizations that are working to address the inadequacy of eating disorder treatment and payment. But, meanwhile, if you have a child who has an eating disorder, you have to figure out how to pay for it.

Insurance coverage

Your first step is to get a formal diagnosis and find out what your insurance provider offers in terms of treatment. Depending on the diagnosis, your insurance provider, and various other factors, your child’s eating disorder treatment may be covered up to a certain point. But it is unlikely that the ongoing treatment required to maintain recovery will be covered. So, unfortunately, parents are in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how to pay for at least some of their child’s treatment for an eating disorder.

Grants for eating disorder treatment

There are two organizations that offer grants to help pay for eating disorder treatment. Project Heal is a major US-based organization that administers several grants, which you can check out here. The Manna fund offers scholarships for inpatient treatment programs in Atlanta, which you can check out here. Unfortunately, those are the only two organizations that we can currently identify as actively providing help with eating disorder treatment, but ask your treatment program or provider whether they have any grants or scholarships available.

Low/No Cost eating disorder treatment

If your child is currently enrolled in K-12 school, you should check with the school psychologist and/or counselor to find out how they may be able to help. Some schools have the resources to provide free counseling for students who have eating disorders.

If your child is currently enrolled in college, you should check with the school health center and psychology department. Often students can receive free counseling and therapy for a period of time.

Sometimes universities and research hospitals offer eating disorder treatment programs as part of their research. For example,  the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry has linked to RecruitMe, a recruitment tool meant to connect those who want to participate in clinical trials or research studies to the researchers that are conducting them, to help you find one. You can also check the national list of ongoing clinical trials here.

Budgeting for eating disorder treatment

Unfortunately, like insurance coverage, both of these options are limited in scope and time. While they typically cover inpatient treatment, they may not cover ongoing treatment that is often necessary to maintain recovery. Eating disorders are complex and multi-faceted disorders that typically require ongoing treatment for underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression.

This means that parents are in the unenviable position of needing to fund their child’s recovery treatment out-of-pocket. If you are struggling to pay for your child’s treatment, please know that it’s absolutely not fair that we live in a society that grossly under-treats this serious condition. This totally sucks. Many parents go into debt, deplete retirement savings, and resort to other desperate measures to save their child.

Here are some basic budgeting concepts to help you plan for treatment.

1. Avoid expensive solutions

Many parents don’t realize that they don’t have to send their child to inpatient treatment for an eating disorder. Residential treatment programs cost an average of $30,000, but many times less expensive treatment is an excellent option.

In cases in which your child is not in immediate medical danger, you may be able to utilize outpatient treatment centers or even a less structured solution utilizing regular sessions with therapists and nutritionists. Remember that eating disorder treatment is a marathon, not a sprint. Very few of us will become instantly cured, and parents need to have the finances and energy for ongoing treatment for the foreseeable future.

Do your research. It’s hard to make big decisions when we’re really stressed, but as long as your child is medically stable, take some time to think through your options. Learn about eating disorders and treatment options, and don’t just blindly follow a treatment center’s recommendation. Remember that no matter how nice and authoritative they seem, treatment centers are running a business and need to recruit customers. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but we must always take their advice with this in mind.

It is better to hire one excellent and highly-qualified therapists than to work with a low-cost, poorly-qualified team. Ideally, we recommend finding a HAES-oriented therapist who has been certified by the IAEDP and has at least 5 years of clinical experience working specifically with eating disorders.

READ MORE: What I want parents to think about before sending their child to an Eating Disorder Treatment Center, by John Levitt, PhD

2. Create a budget

The biggest mistake people make when budgeting is not writing down the expected costs. Most of us just think about money one day at a time, but it will really help you avoid financial ruin if you can look at the costs of your child’s treatment clearly and in writing.

Whatever treatment you decide upon, you should ask your providers to give you a budget for at least six months of treatment. For example, if your child seems like a candidate for a lower-cost treatment program, you may get the following fee estimates:

  • Therapy for your child: $150 per session, with twice-weekly sessions for four weeks, and once-weekly sessions for the following five months.
  • Nutrition therapy for your child: $100 per session, with four sessions spread over four weeks, with follow up once-monthly sessions for the following five months.
  • Family therapy: $150 per session, with twice-monthly sessions for six months.

This means you can budget as follows:

Therapist Nutritionist Family Therapy Monthly Total
Month 1 $1,200 $400 $300 $1,900
Month 2 $600 $100 $300 $1,000
Month 3 $600 $100 $300 $1,000
Month 4 $600 $100 $300 $1,000
Month 5 $600 $100 $300 $1,000
Month 6 $600 $100 $300 $1,000
6-Month Total $4,200 $900 $1,800 $6,900

Once you have estimated your monthly costs and the total cost for six months of treatment, you can begin to think about how you are going to afford treatment.

3. Create a savings plan

Before you start considering dipping into savings and using credit cards to pay for treatment, create a savings plan – you may be surprised by how little changes can make a big impact on your ability to pay for treatment. Think of every way you can reduce existing expenses first because this is going to help you avoid going into debt. Most of us have at least some non-essential expenses that can be cut to afford major expenses like eating disorder treatment. The key with a savings plan is to write it down and commit to your savings plan in writing.

Some impressive savings that can add up include:

Savings Plan Maximum Annual Savings
If you buy coffee at a cafe, you spend between $5-$25 a week, which equals between $240-$1,200 per year. $1,200
If you buy lunch at work, you spend between $10-$15 each day, which equals between $2,500-$3,750 per year. If you make your own lunch you’ll spend just $3-$6 per day. The savings is between $1,750-$2,250 per year. $2,250
If you eat dinner out each week, you spend between $15 and $35 per person. For a family of four, that means you’re spending $60-$140 each week, or $3,120-$7,280. That could pay for the eating disorder treatment all by itself! Since most of us eat out more than once per week, cutting out one restaurant dinner per week could make a huge difference financially without too much burden. $7,280
If you tend to over-spend and don’t know where your money goes, you could be wasting hundreds of dollars each month. Institute a 30-day wait rule, which means that any purchase that is not absolutely essential (i.e. food or other essential requirements) must be put on a waiting list and stay there for 30 days. If after 30 days you still want and need the item, you can buy it. With this program, we usually find that we do not actually “need” many of the things we think we do. $1,200+
If you are planning a vacation in the next 12 months and can cancel it, do that. The average vacation costs $1,145 per person or $4,580 for a family of four. Don’t give up on the idea of the vacation – just the expenses. Plan a fun staycation with daily family activities. Even if you budget half of what you planned for the vacation, you’ll still save almost $3,000 $3,000
Total Possible Savings $14,930

Reducing expenses is surprisingly easy since small expenses add up. In this example, we could pay for more than 12 months of the prescribed treatment with very little impact on our quality of life. If you are worried about sticking to a savings plan, remember to write it down and keep track of your savings so you can stay motivated.

4. Finance if necessary

Whenever possible, it is better for your long-term financial prospects if you can pay for treatment by saving money rather than going into debt. But this requires you to have room in your budget to cut back, and it takes discipline and time. If necessary, consider these payment options:

  • Borrow from investments and retirement savings – be really careful about this unless you are absolutely sure you will be able to pay yourself back any money you borrow.
  • Borrow from friends and family members – consider using a site like GoFundMe.com or GiveForward.com to ask friends and family members for help.
  • Borrow against your home equity – if you own your home and it has equity, you could take out a line of credit against your home’s value. Be very careful to avoid getting “underwater,” and don’t over-borrow or you could end up owing more than you can get if you sell your home in the future.
  • Use credit offers – these typically have a 6-12-month no-finance charge period, but you will still pay a fee up-front. Be very careful with these, and avoid them if you don’t think you will be able to pay the entire balance at the end of the 0% period. The best way to use these is to write yourself a check and pay it off with equal monthly payments over the remaining months. While you will pay the up-front fee, you will not pay finance charges as long as you zero out the balance in the grace period.

Paying for your child’s eating disorder treatment is an unfortunate side effect of living in a society that undervalues and under-treats mental illness. Be careful about over-investing without thinking through the actual costs and creating a financial plan to make sure you don’t end up in an unsustainable situation.

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