A Problem for Gamblers

Problem gamblers who seek counseling services in Colorado have the odds against them. An estimated 5 percent of the state's 4.3 million people are problem gamblers, and those who seek help in curbing their compulsive habits are restricted to a menu of around eight service providers, none of which is allocated funding in the state budget. A lack of state funding for problem gambling services not only leaves behind the financial and social concerns of the problem gambler's family, but also denies problem gamblers treatment and potential problem gamblers prevention programs and problem gambling education.

Existing problem gambling services -- comprised of private practice addiction counselors and services funded by individual casino and donor contributions -- are incapable of reaching most of those in need. While Colorado is not the only state without problem gambling funding, it is in the minority: about 37 of the 43 states with legalized gambling already provide some kind of problem gambling aid.

The Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado (PGCC), an organization that raises awareness and advocates counseling for problem gambling, receives around $75,000 annually from individual casino donors and members of the industry, including the Colorado Division of Gaming and the Colorado Lottery. The PGCC redirects more than half of its budget to the University of Denver's Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center, which offers long-term counseling geared towards reducing harmful gambling behaviors.

"I look around and see millions of dollars in taxes, and see these people who nobody is paying attention to," says J. Michael Faragher, director of training and research at Denver's Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center. The PGCC is supporting legislation to amend the Colorado Limited Gaming Impact Fund that would open up state funding from casino revenue taxes to counseling services like the Center, says Amber Bunch, executive director of the PGCC. The legislation was overwhelmingly passed in the Colorado House of Representatives this month, and is currently on its way to the State Senate,

State funding for treatment of problem gamblers could mean a shift toward more proactive policy, through efforts in school intervention and gambling addiction education. Also, when compared to behaviors like alcoholism or sex addiction, gambling addiction is under-researched, so targeting the source of the problem early on is often impractical. More extensive research in the field of problem gambling could identify demographic vulnerabilities, as well as how popular televised gambling tournaments, state lotteries, internet gambling and other "immediately available" sources influence compulsive gamblers.

State funding could also mean reaching a wider audience through public outreach, including more community events, like workshops in public libraries and universities the Problem Gambling Center has already hosted. With increased funding, counseling services could stay open more hours and on more days, and hire more staff. "We need to make our availability much more widely known, and it's very difficult to do," Faragher says. "Marketing is a very expensive enterprise."

With only about six certified addiction counselors in the entire state of Colorado, according to the PGCC's Web site, training new counselors should be a priority. For someone to become a certified problem gambling counselor, they must go through specialized training that prepares them to help problem gamblers deal with the unique financial and emotional hardships they face. But networking barriers exist. "The rural areas are tough to get to," Faragher says. "We could do television training, telephone training. If we had money to put up a Web site, we could have training video on the Web site." Faragher is confident that more long-distance training options would bring in new counselors. In fact, he got his gambling counselor certification over the phone, in a remote training program offered by professionals from a medical school in Nevada.

Dr. David Diffee, a private practice psychologist certified in addictive behaviors in Colorado, agrees that addiction counselors should be prepared to treat problem gambling's unique financial and social crises. He believes that there isn't enough help for people who have lost their jobs and who are buried in gambling debt. "How many times can an employee not come to work or disappear from work before his employer fires them?" Diffee says, recognizing that some problem gamblers often go missing in the workplace as a result of their addiction. "Then what happens to that employee and that employee's family?" Diffee asks. And once a problem gambler loses their job it's increasingly unlikely they will find new employment. "If it's a gambler, the employer says, 'No.'"

Training more addiction counselors doesn't necessarily mean problem gambling will go away. Besides the University of Denver's Problem Gambling Center, most other counseling services in Colorado are private practice. "A lot of gamblers are in big trouble and can't afford me," Diffee says. I get two or three calls every week from people asking if I take insurance, and I don't. Insurance companies want to limit how many times I see a gambler, and want to pay me a reduced rate." Cutting resources for counselors and putting timetables on counseling services both make actually helping a problem gambler unrealistic.

On the other hand, increased state funding would allow problem gamblers and their families who have been financially devastated to receive more affordable and more readily available help from public organizations like the University of Denver program, ultimately offering a valuable alternative to the few-and-far-between private practice counselors. State funding for problem gambling should be aimed toward first raising awareness about the addictive behaviors associated with gambling, and then toward treating those who are already problem gamblers. In addition to cleaning up after problem gambling -- bolstering services like law enforcement for domestic violence cases covered by the Colorado Limited Gaming Impact Fund -- state money could also be used toward making problem gambling education, research and counseling services more widespread.

If Colorado is generating revenue from gambling, there is a moral imperative for the state to provide problem gambling services to help those who are hurt in the process. The neighboring states of New Mexico and Missouri do, with a portion of casinos' revenue going towards providing problem gambling education and counseling. Missouri goes as far as to provide free counseling services to gamblers and their families. "They owe their souls and everything they are going to earn for the next 10 years," says Keith Spare, chair of the Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns. "You can't get in the way of the services."

The Missouri Council is one of several organizations that backed the Missouri Gaming Association in lobbying for state funding for problem gamblers. Before that legislation was passed in 2001, problem gambling services were funded largely by volunteers. The Gaming Commission spearheaded the movement toward state funding because it recognized a substantial need for better problem gambling services. Now, the Missouri Department of Mental Health's Compulsive Gamblers Fund uses one cent from every casino admission fee paid to make problem gambling services free. (In 2004, state taxes from 11 Missouri casinos totaled $319 million, $15 million more than the total paid by the 60,000 other Missouri businesses combined.)

"But there's still work to be done," says Spare. "We haven't developed a comprehensive plan. There ought to be a whole menu of counseling services." Its shortcomings aside, Missouri is following the trend of states moving towards dealing with and treating problem gamblers more effectively. "Florida, Connecticut and Louisiana are other states I look to," says Spare. All of them offer some form of state funding for problem gambling, from education for gambling operators to regional problem gambling hotlines.

Keith Whyte, executive director at the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C., says that after 35 years of building awareness for addictive gambling behaviors, states are finally moving toward adopting new problem gambling policies. "Every state should have a well-funded services program for problem gamblers," says Whyte. Currently Kansas is preparing to offer a substantial increase in state funding for direct treatment of problem gamblers, making the state's program one of the largest in the United States. A comparatively enormous 2 percent of gaming revenue annually will go to the Problem Gambling and Addictions Grant Fund. That amounts to approximately $4 million more funding in 2008 and up to $17 million by 2010, according to the Kansas Coalition on Problem Gambling. That's $4 million more in state funding than Colorado -- for about half as many problem gamblers.

What are the cons of increased state funding? "It takes the expansion of gambling to make it happen," says Whyte.