More than four years after casinos began operating in Western Pennsylvania, counties throughout the region have begun localized efforts to call attention to potential gambling addiction problems.
Grass-roots programs such as educating students and older adults about the warning signs of excessive gambling are making their way into schools and senior centers for the first time, funded by a small percentage of the revenue generated from patrons' losses in the state's casinos.
Such education and awareness programs are germinating in the wake of findings in many counties that neither their populations nor the agencies charged with addressing their addiction issues know much about compulsive gambling or how to deal with it. Drug and alcohol problems have traditionally received far more attention and funding.
"How even to have a conversation about problem gambling was new to us," said Erica Usher, prevention supervisor for the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission. "We need to educate people in general as to what gambling is. ... There are some people that have a problem but don't necessarily know where to go for help."
While the Pennsylvania Department of Health began receiving at least $1.5 million annually to address compulsive gambling soon after slots parlors began operating, it was slow to spend that money. It spent several years building up a system of private, certified, gambling addiction treatment providers whose client visits are now subsidized with state funds.
When table games were legalized in January 2010, the Legislature doubled the amount of funds for problem gambling and made it more likely the new money would be spent. It required that the department deliver at least half the funds annually to established county drug and alcohol units, encouraging them to take on anti-compulsive-gambling efforts of their own.
That led to $6.4 million being allocated in the current fiscal year to 37 county agencies, using the health department's unspent prior funds as well as new allocations. That includes 15 county or multicounty agencies in Western Pennsylvania.
In Fayette County, Ms. Usher said, the commission is using about $140,000 for a multifaceted effort, which includes media publicity, youth surveys and speakers in schools, among other strategies.
The Butler County Drug and Alcohol Program received about $263,000, said prevention specialist Beth Ehrenfried-Neveux, who explained it is developing plans to try to have more counselors trained in gambling treatment in Butler County; to partner with Slippery Rock University on an awareness project among college students; to spread information in senior centers about potential addiction; and to get additional information to the prison and mental health populations.
Erie County has awarded a private firm, Preferred Systems Inc., a contract for about $250,000, with much of the money covering the agency's cost to go into Erie schools and teach students in grades 3 through 12 about potential pitfalls.
"We talk about odds, do a little math program showing what the probability of winning is," said Mike Chevalier, president of Preferred Systems, adding that more educating will be done of Erie County's older residents next year. "We don't talk to them about the evils of gambling per se but about the at-risk behaviors."
The Erie programs are based on a pilot project called Smart Choices that the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania has a state contract to develop in schools. The council, based in Philadelphia, initially focused on Eastern Pennsylvania schools but is preparing to add some on the western side of the state.
Allegheny County's Department of Human Services has been less aggressive in pursuing state funds than some neighboring counties, obtaining $92,262, primarily to give out 15 minigrants of $5,000 each to grassroots organizations that would apply for funds to address problem gambling in some fashion. Four of those grants have been awarded so far.
One went to Saltworks Theatre Co., which is in rehearsal of a play called "No Big Deal" that it wants to perform in high schools. Saltworks Executive Director Norma Alrutz said it focuses on a high school student addicted to Texas Hold 'Em and other gambling games, just as other Saltworks productions have dealt with students involved in substance abuse, bullying, sexually transmitted disease and other troubles.
"The biggest thing with high school gambling is to expose it," Ms. Alrutz said. "Right now, especially in Western Pennsylvania, we have not heard much about it -- teens getting caught up in gambling addiction."
One state requirement for all of the counties before it began doling out problem gambling funds was that they perform some kind of needs assessment of the scope of the issue in their communities. National studies have generally suggested 1 to 2 percent of the population are pathological gamblers, and perhaps twice that number have problems ranked less severe.
Robin Rothermel, director of state drug and alcohol programs, said there remains no good baseline studies in Pennsylvania to know how much of a problem existed before casinos began operating and whether it has become any worse in the years since.
The counties doing the assessments generally sought out mental health professionals and others in their communities for opinions about the degree to which gambling is disruptive.
"We found out it's all over the board," Ms. Rothermel said. "Some folks see it as a huge problem, some not so much."
The health department in 2010-11 added 166 individuals, including 45 Allegheny County residents, to its list of those obtaining subsidized gambling treatment from state-certified therapists. Ms. Rothermel said those numbers have been doubling each year and probably will do so again in the current year.
Jody Bechtold, a licensed social worker in Mt. Lebanon who treats clients for gambling, said, "I'm getting a lot of phone calls, seeing a lot more for sports betting, a lot more for table games. ... It's just a lot more, and I am now seeing people affected because of the casino."
The 2010 legislation that increased funding for problem gambling, now at a level of $4.6 million annually, also specified that the health department should provide an annual report covering its efforts on the issue by Oct. 1 each year. That report for 2011 has not yet been released. Ms. Rothermel said organizational snags have delayed it, but it should be completed soon.
The state sponsors a website, www.paproblemgambling.com, for those who might need help, in addition to subsidizing a gambling help line reached at 1-877-565-2112 or 1-800-GAMBLER.
Gary Rotstein: email@example.com or 412-263-1255.