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Eating disorder council still unfunded

The Missouri Eating Disorder Council was created by law in 2010. In reality, it doesn’t exist.

The council hasn’t formed because Gov. Jay Nixon cut its first-year funding from the 2012 budget. Now, advocates are pleading with Nixon to allow the council to receive at least a bit of money when he decides whether to cut the state’s budget for the 2013 fiscal year.

Nixon was signing the state’s public school budget Sunday evening and was expected to take action later this week on the rest of Missouri’s $24 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The past three years, Nixon has cut the budget to keep it in balance. But Nixon has not revealed whether he will do so this week, and, if so, which areas he will target.

In the meantime, Nixon’s office has received dozens of online messages imploring him to preserve funding for particular programs that were cut in years past, such as aid to public colleges and universities, Area Health Education Centers, the Missouri Scholars Academy and the Missouri Eating Disorder Council.

“Eating disorders don’t get taken very seriously in the overall scheme of things,” Nancy Ellis-Ordway, a licensed clinical social worker who treats eating disorders, said in an interview. The Jefferson City resident volunteered to serve on the council in an online message to Nixon’s office.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a cute thing the cheerleaders do for a while.’ (But) eating disorders are absolutely devastating,” Ellis-Ordway said.

The letter-writing campaigns show how important a comparatively small amount of money in a large budget can be to particular groups. They also illustrate how laws — without the money to back them up — often cannot be carried out.

The Eating Disorder Council was established under a 2010 law with a three-part objective — to oversee education and awareness programs, determine whether adequate diagnosis and treatment services are available in Missouri and help the state Department of Mental Health identify research projects on eating disorders.

The department director was to appoint a council of agency personnel, eating disorder researchers and clinicians, patient advocates and members of the general public. But that has not happened, because the council never received any money, department spokesman Bob Bax confirmed.

Lawmakers had included $150,000 for the Eating Disorder Council in the 2012 budget, which ends June 30. But Nixon cut its funding — along with millions of dollars for other programs — last June in order to balance the budget.

Lawmakers have tried again to get the council going, setting aside $78,850 in the 2013 budget pending before Nixon. The governor can choose to approve the money, reduce it or again eliminate it entirely.

Advocates for people with eating disorders have been sending messages to Nixon’s office laden with facts and figures about eating disorders. The messages note that 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, and contend that children are starting to develop them earlier. And the messages assert that insurers don’t always cover treatment.

The messages were supplied to The Associated Press by the governor’s office in response for a records request for correspondence about the budget.

Retired psychologist Richard Fontana, of St. Peters, sent Nixon’s office a form letter posted on the Missouri Psychological Association website. In an interview, Fontana said that eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are some of the most misunderstood psychological disorders.

“It really is a disorder, and it can be deadly,” he said. “Education might be one of the big things they can do with their money” for the council.

Nixon’s decision to cut the council out of the 2012 budget wasn’t necessarily because he disagreed with its purpose. His budget director, Linda Luebbering, explained last year that the budget had little room for new initiatives.

It’s the same challenge the Eating Disorder Council faces this year, though the potential budget shortfall isn’t as large.

Missouri’s budget could be as much as $75 million short, based on a worst-case scenario in which the Missouri Lottery fails to generate the extra $35 million upon which officials are banking; a trio of tax break bills drains up to $20 million; and an additional $20 million is needed for Medicaid and disaster recovery efforts, Luebbering said.

But rather than making immediate cuts, Nixon could choose to sign the budget and delay a decision on spending reductions until after the November election or until the next legislative session begins in January. That would give him more time to see whether state revenues are exceeding their projected 3.9 percent growth rate upon which the budget is based.

“If we think there’s an opportunity for the economy to do even better than anticipated, you could take a wait-and-see attitude,” Luebbering said.

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