Programs for gambling addicts take shape as table games hit state casinos
January 11, 2010 3:00 PM
Gamblers at the slots at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
By Gary Rotstein Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
State officials still trying to assess and address the level of compulsive gambling in Pennsylvania are expecting new challenges from the addition of table games, but counting on a cash infusion to help counter increased problems.
The gambling expansion bill approved in the Capitol last week -- expected to bring craps, roulette and card-playing to the nine existing casinos by summer -- also requires the Pennsylvania Department of Health to better spell out its efforts to battle gambling addiction. The health department also will have to funnel money to counties to work on gambling problems instead of building unspent reserves in its own compulsive gambling fund, as it has done.
The approval of table games comes at a time when there's been no clear signal of how the slots parlors operating in Pennsylvania for several years have affected compulsive gambling, and with the state spending only a small fraction of the money available for the issue.
Of $3.2 million allocated to the health department from July 2007 to June 2009 to work on compulsive gambling, its Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Programs has spent only $750,000 so far. The bureau focused primarily on creating a system of state-reimbursed treatment providers to counsel gambling addicts.
The help has been minimally advertised, however, and only 85 Pennsylvanians have received the services in more than a year.
State officials say more widespread efforts are under way, including expenditures for prevention and awareness of compulsive gambling using an additional $2.4 million allocated this year, but the new legislation has several provisions aimed at assuring a boost in services:
• The state's Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund is potentially to be doubled in annual allocations. It will receive as much as $2 million from every $1 billion the casinos generate (they made $1.8 billion in the last fiscal year). Formerly, the fund received $1 million from every billion dollars generated, with a minimum of $1.5 million annually.
• The health department will have to give at least half of the gambling treatment fund's revenue to counties for their own compulsive gambling initiatives.
• Another $3 million annually from gambling revenues is to be allocated for drug and alcohol treatment, recognizing the high overlap between those diseases and gambling addiction. The money previously was part of a $5 million annual allocation to law enforcement agencies to crack down on unlawful gambling, an amount that now shrinks to $2 million.
• The health department has new requirements to develop a strategic plan to combat compulsive gambling, to prepare an itemized budget of how it will spend funds for the effort, and to deliver an annual report to the Legislature and governor on its progress.
The compulsive gambling changes were minimally discussed in the House and Senate debate over table games, so there was no indication if they represented any dissatisfaction with how the health department has handled the issue since slots parlors opened.
Jason Brehouse, legal counsel to Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing gambling, said lawmakers recognize it takes time to start a program like compulsive gambling prevention from scratch. But they also wanted some new accountability and ways of making sure the money allocated is spent.
"It's trying to make sure the money gets to the folks who could ultimately provide these services," Mr. Brehouse said. "It reflects the concern of the Legislature that, 'Look, we're providing these monies for a reason, so if we're going to provide for it, let's make sure it actually does what it was meant to do.' "
Still unclear is actually how new funds coming into the program will be spent by the counties. Robin Rothermel, director of state drug and alcohol programs, said $2 million in unspent existing funds had already been earmarked to go to counties for compulsive gambling assessment and prevention programs. Details have yet to be spelled out for how counties go about using those funds, or benefit from the new flow of future funds.
Bob Stumpp, senior policy manager for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said the county will welcome the chance to get involved in gambling addiction issues, as its officials were surprised to be left out of the state's initial planning. He said it will take months of discussion with the state to define the county's role.
Ms. Rothermel said different counties will take different approaches, because some that aren't close to casinos won't see gambling as a major issue for them. It's uncertain, as well, how much legalization of table games will create additional compulsive gamblers.
Most studies classify at least 1 percent of the population as pathological gamblers, which would equate to 90,000 adult Pennsylvanians. Some researchers believe that slot machines, because of the speed of play and other alluring features, are more addictive than table games. The table games legislation creates one new facet in Pennsylvania, however, that concerns those worried about addiction -- the ability of the casinos to extend credit to patrons.
"It's very possible we'll see increased numbers" of problem gamblers requiring help, Ms. Rothermel said. "We've looked at a lot of other jurisdictions that have problem gambling programs, and those states did see increases with introduction of table games on top of their slots.
"There's different types of people drawn to different types of gambling activities. There may be folks who have not been big casino players because they're not big slots players, and now, table games may be something new for them."
Jim Pappas, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania, said, "We anticipate there will be an increase in usage of our help line and needs for our service, but I can't project how much that will be."
The nonprofit council recently entered an agreement with the state in which it is responsible for Pennsylvania's compulsive gambling help line (1-800-GAMBLER) and will oversee an approximately $200,000-a-year pilot program to provide information about gambling prevention in schools. Details of the program are still being developed, but Mr. Pappas said it will begin some work in Pittsburgh-area schools this year.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 12, 2010) Pennsylvania Department of Health officials report they have spent $750,000 of an original $3.2 million allocation from July 2007 through June 2009 for compulsive gambling programs. This story as originally published Jan. 11, 2010 gave a lower figure, which only covered spending through June 30, 2009.