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Louisiana Bets on a Hand for Compulsive Gamblers

Two state facilities treat addicted bettors, but little help is available elsewhere in the nation. Legalized wagering fuels the problem.

June 13, 2004|Alan Sayre | Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Legalized gambling has provided a jackpot of tax dollars for many states, but virtually no money is being funneled to treat the exploding numbers of problem players -- the ones who could lose everything.

Louisiana has the nation's only two state-supported residential treatment centers for problem gamblers. Among the other gambling states, only New Jersey chips in -- on a limited basis -- for outpatient treatment.

"If you took the size of the Earth as being the problem and you took a swimming pool in someone's backyard, that's the size of the resources available for compulsive gamblers," said Arnie Wexler, former executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

Estimates vary on how many problem gamblers there are in the United States. A national study authorized by Congress in the late 1990s suggested that up to 6% of the adult population has a gambling problem, with about 1% being pathological -- or completely out of control.

In Louisiana, population 4.4 million, a recent study by the state health department estimated there were about 74,000 pathological gamblers.

The state has two residential-type treatment centers -- CORE North in Shreveport and CORE South in New Orleans, with a total of 36 beds -- but that's more than any other gambling state, including Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Florida.

Problem gamblers from those states regularly wind up in Louisiana's centers, but unlike state residents who are treated free, they pay $6,000 per month for their stay.

"We are only meeting something in the vicinity of 1% of the need," said Reece Middleton, head of the Louisiana Assn. on Compulsive Gambling and co-founder of the Shreveport center, which opened in 1999. "But that's not to say that if we opened 100 beds tomorrow, we'd fill them. People are not real easy to get into treatment."

Nationwide, casinos paid about $4 billion in direct gambling taxes in 2002, the American Gaming Assn., a casino industry trade group, said. Louisiana's two enters get $2 million a year from state gambling taxes: $500,000 each from the New Orleans land casino, the 14 riverboat casinos, the state lottery and video poker. The state's three Indian casinos, which do not pay state taxes, contribute nothing.

The explosion of legalized gambling since the early 1990s has doubtlessly fueled the problem, but the number of Gamblers Anonymous meetings shows that the crisis reaches far beyond states with casinos, Wexler said. Sports betting -- legal only in Nevada -- contributes to a big share, he said.

"I'm not going to tell you that availability is the sole problem because you have states like Utah and Hawaii that don't have any legal gambling going on, but you have compulsive gamblers in those states," Wexler said.

Since it opened last year, CORE South has handled 185 clients, said Corinne Dumestre, program director. Counselors saw gamblers who got in trouble with just about every form of wagering -- illegal sports betting, casinos, video poker, horse racing and Internet casinos.

"You are going to continually have an increasing number of problem gamblers as you increase gaming," Dumestre said.

Those seeking help have limited options. Health insurance generally does not cover treatment.

"There's a Catch-22," said Mitch Wallick, who operates the private C.A.R.E. treatment center in Palm Beach, Fla. "By the time a gambler is ready for treatment and recognizes that, he has no money left."

That is what happened to Jimmy of San Francisco, who wound up in the New Orleans center. He said he started looking for help about a year ago -- while embezzling $500 a week from his employer to fuel forays into high-stakes card games at casinos. Both his company's assistance program and health insurer refused to help. They didn't recognize gambling as a problem, said Jimmy, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used.

By the time he got into CORE South, he had lost his $65,000-a-year job and separated from his wife and three children. His father lent him money to get treatment instead of using what little was left of his retirement fund.

Along with other residents, Jimmy is learning to control his behavior through individual and group therapy, much of it patterned after the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"This program here is a beautiful thing for the state of Louisiana and its people," Jimmy said.

However, Dumestre said treatment alone, no matter how widely offered, is not enough to handle the problem. "We need to start our children young and educate them about the dangers of gambling," she said. "We need to educate the senior citizens. And we have to offer these seniors something besides gambling" for group entertainment.

Some casino operators are taking steps to limit compulsive gamblers -- at least at their own properties -- through programs known as "responsible gaming."

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