Addicts may get aid from slots

Ehrlich pledges to allot 0.1 percent from revenues for problem gamblers

Md. `provides practically nothing'

State has hot line, but few options for residents addicted to gambling

March 10, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Every month, compulsive gamblers from Maryland call a telephone hot line pleading for help. Their sad stories come in from nearly every major gambling venue in the nation -- Atlantic City, Dover Downs, Las Vegas, Pimlico.

But the operators fielding the pleas can offer very few options for help in Maryland.

"When the state runs a help line, you have to have places to send people," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, which administers the phone line. "Maryland provides practically nothing."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. intends to correct that situation with slot machines, one of the very culprits that exacerbate the compulsive gambler's affliction. As part of the overall plan to put thousands of slot machines at Maryland racetracks, Ehrlich proposes to set aside money to deal with problem gambling -- 0.1 percent of the $1.1 billion in revenues the machines are estimated to reap by the start of 2005. By then, state funding for problem gambling treatment is projected to grow to $1.1 million, according to state officials.

With the observance of the first National Problem Gambling Awareness Week beginning today, Ehrlich's proposal occurs as all 48 states that allow gambling -- only Hawaii and Utah do not -- are grappling with the question of public funding to treat pathological gamblers.

Oregon's answer last fiscal year was to spend $4 million for phone lines, counseling and therapist training. Surprisingly, Nevada paid nothing. Instead, casino companies financed several treatment options. And New Jersey parted with $700,000, far less than the $1.25 million Delaware spent. Maryland, although it has a state lottery and horse racing, finances nothing.

"I think it's a positive trend that more states are increasingly adopting this type of funding as public policy," said Tim Christensen, president of the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators. But, he added, "it is rather ironic that unless Maryland expands their gambling, then it won't pay for treatment."

Even more ironic is that more than 20 years ago, Maryland was the first state to finance a treatment program. In 1978, the state partnered with the Johns Hopkins University to provide residential treatment. State funding to deal with problem gamblers began to fizzle in the late 1980s and was cut off entirely last summer.

Funds for help cut

In June, Maryland's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration eliminated $21,000 that had paid for a telephone help line.

Joanna Franklin, executive director for the Maryland Council on Compulsive Gambling, won the contract in June 2000. At the time, Franklin said, the money was not enough to staff an in-state hot line. The operators who answer calls from Maryland's gamblers are based in a call center in Dallas.

Franklin, of Baltimore, said other state governments pay for her to train their counselors. "But I can't get any money from Maryland," she said.

Although pathological gambling is recognized as a disease, experts said, the disorder is stigmatizing in a way that prevents its sufferers from receiving the attention that drug and alcohol addicts get. Many health insurance companies offer no coverage for its treatment.

"Most therapists have not been trained in compulsive gambling," said Valerie Lorenz, president of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. in Baltimore. "You can't just treat it like any other addiction."

Recent comments from Ehrlich demonstrated the popular perception that gambling, more so than other addictions, is an individual choice rather than an impulse disorder.

At a recent legislative hearing, Ehrlich called gambling an "adult decision" like any other, including the decision to eat too many chocolate bars.

"We expect adults to appreciate their freedoms and abide by laws," he said. "We know adults who cannot handle Hershey bars. We know adults who cannot handle gin and tonic."

David Robertson, a board member and past chairman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said states must stop building new gambling venues until the disease is better understood.

"Hershey bars do not cause people to kill themselves or to accumulate $100,000 in debt," Robertson said.

A glimpse at calls

The callers to Maryland's phone line offer a telling peek at how the addiction ravages families, rich and poor, and finances. They gamble on everything from Keno, horseracing and lotteries to sports, stocks and Delaware slots. They steal from family and friends, lose jobs, ruin marriages and miss house and car payments. For example:

A Columbia mother called to find help for a son who had racked up $100,000 in debt. "I'm afraid he is over his head and I think he's been gambling with some really bad people," she told an operator.

A 38-year-old Frederick woman called to say she lost $3,000 and had "to call her ailing mother for the money."

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