Six years after Erin Riederer died from anorexia, her mother has finally gotten at least a small amount of consolation.
On Dec. 7, the U.S. Senate passed the Anna Westin Act. The bipartisan bill, pushed in large part by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, is the first piece of legislation passed by Congress specifically with the goal of helping people with eating disorders. The bill has since been signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Erin Riederer, an Elm Grove woman, was 28 when she died from liver failure associated with anorexia nervosa. Her death certificate lists the cause of death as anorexia.
In the years since their daughter’s death, Joan and William Riederer have founded the Erin Riederer Foundation and taken up arms in the battle to raise awareness and make treatment more available for the approximately 30 million Americans who will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes.
“I feel much relief. But we still have a long ways to go,” Joan said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The Anna Westin Act passed as part of the larger 21st Century Cures and Mental Health Reform Package in the House of Representatives 392 to 26 on Nov. 30 and in the Senate 94 to 5. The bill includes clarification of existing mental health parity law to improve health insurance coverage for eating disorders.
Joan noted that while she is pleased with Congress approving the bill, she hopes that insurance companies are held accountable to the new law.
The bill is named for Anna Westin, a Minnesota native who suffered from anorexia for five years and committed suicide at the age of 21 as a result of her eating disorder. Like Erin, Anna’s death certificate lists anorexia as the cause of death.
“Anorexia nervosa is rarely cited on death certificates. It’s always ‘they died of heart failure’ or something like that," Joan said. "That’s what’s listed, but it’s caused by anorexia. Unless we make a point of having that on death certificates, we’re never really going to get a handle on how many cases there are out there.”
In their time fighting back against eating disorders, the Riederers have been active and on the front lines, meeting with elected officials like Baldwin, and traveling to Washington D.C. to speak before Congress and take part in marches. The Riederers have known the Westins since 2000, seven years into Erin’s own, long fight with anorexia.
“I’ve known Kitty Westin since 2000. She knew our daughter and when our daughter passed away I really joined the fight with her. It was even before that,” Joan said. “I’ve spoken at the Capitol in Washington, I’ve spoken both outdoors on the lawn of the Capitol and at three congressional briefings,” she said.
Kitty Westin, whose daughter died in February of 2000 after her insurance declined to pay for inpatient treatment, also serves as a board member for the Eating Disorders Coalition.
“This has been an incredibly long journey that started for me the day Anna died over 16 years ago,” Kitty said. “While I understand that the journey is far from over, I celebrate this great accomplishment that will help millions of people just like Anna.”
Baldwin also spoke with pride after being a leader in what turned out to be an overwhelmingly affirmative vote in both houses of Congress.
“I am proud of our bipartisan effort to enact the essential reforms of the Anna Westin Act,” Baldwin said. “Women and men with eating disorders deserve the same access to quality health care that is available to individuals who are suffering from other mental conditions and other mental illnesses.”
Awareness, education needed
As the fight goes on, Joan thinks that a large part of the future must include more awareness and education about the seriousness of eating disorders.
“This disease can go from a non-issue to a life-threatening issue in a heartbeat,” Joan said. “By the time someone realizes that their child is suffering, they’re often already compromised.”
The Erin Riederer Foundation continues its work on both a local and national level.
Earlier this year, the foundation contacted the Medical College of Wisconsin to offer an annual tuition scholarship to the Academy of Eating Disorders International Conference. Although she was not applying for the scholarship, Elm Grove native and first-year medical student Kieran McAvoy, who attended Brookfield East High School with the Riederer's son, Justin, heard about it and decided to join the fight.
McAvoy wrote a resolution to the Wisconsin American Medical Association to encourage the support of equal access to care for eating disorders. Her resolution was approved at the Wisconsin AMA in April and later approved at the National AMA Conference in Chicago in June.
"Within a few short months, we had a major accomplishment," Joan said. "Miracles do happen."
For more information, find them on Facebook by searching for Erin Riederer Foundation.