Unused service for gamblers may be revised

Posted March 30, 2009, at 10:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee heard testimony Monday on a bill that aims to improve the state’s outreach to gambling addicts.

For more than two years, the Office of Substance Abuse in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has offered a counseling service for those they call “problem gamblers.” That program is funded from a portion of the income Penn National Gaming Inc. receives from slot machines at the company’s Hollywood Slots facility in Bangor.

But not a single person has received treatment through the program, according to Guy Cousins, director of the Office of Substance Abuse.

In fact, state officials reduced the program’s budget from $100,000 to $50,000 because of the lack of use, and then, as part of midyear budget cuts, eliminated the allocation altogether for the fiscal year that ends June 30. That money has been tentatively rebudgeted for next fiscal year.

Cousins said they know there are gambling addicts in Maine. National statistics estimate that 1 to 3 percent of the total population — and as high as 4 percent of the population near gambling facilities — has a gambling problem.

But problem gambling is known as a “hidden addiction” because most addicts try to treat it themselves rather than seek formal assistance, he said. Some addicts may be reluctant to come forward out of embarrassment and because of the stigma attached to problem gamblers.

Hollywood Slots does offer a self-exclusion program, in which people who feel they have a problem can essentially ban themselves from the facility for one year or more. About 100 people are on that list, according to Robert Welch, executive director of the Gambling Control Board.

Lack of awareness also likely contributes to the nonuse of counseling services, Cousins said. The strict statutory language establishing the program requires all money to be spent on counseling, not marketing.

“We can’t do any sort of public awareness campaigning whatsoever,” Cousins said.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, has introduced a bill that would earmark more of the income already going to the state from Hollywood Slots in Bangor to gambling addiction programs.

As written, the bill would redirect all 3 percent of the net slots income now going to the Gambling Control Board to the Office of Substance Abuse, but Carey said Monday that the figure should be adjusted to avoid leaving a large hole in the board’s budget.

The state’s General Fund received approximately $1.4 million in net, or post-payout, slots income and $5 million from gross income, according to figures provided Monday. About $1.5 million of that money is appropriated to the Gambling Control Board through the traditional budget process.

Carey said the state has a moral obligation to reach the families affected by gambling addiction.

“The fact is the state of Maine has not been successful in finding ways to treat problem gambling,” he told members of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Cousins said the bill, LD 833, supports his office’s goals of offering a more comprehensive suite of gambling addiction services similar to what is offered to substance abusers.

Right now, his office has no money for gambling addiction prevention, intervention or public outreach, such as kiosks at Hollywood Slots.

Welch spoke neither for nor against the bill. No one spoke in opposition.

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