Gambling treatment programs cut

From the Eugene Register-Guard, March 27, 2010

A decline in lottery profits is leading to less help for addicts

Maybe you’ve seen the TV ad: Three women are in the ladies’ room. One confides that she’s kicked a gambling addiction by seeking treatment. Another woman eavesdrops, realizes she needs help, too, and asks, “Can I talk to you?”

The ad, paid for by the Oregon Lottery, has spurred more calls to the state’s gambling help line.

But people who want help may need more luck than ever getting treatment.

Starting in April, the state will make deep cuts in the programs that provide treatment for gambling addicts. At least 265 people will be turned away, state budget records say.

The treatment and prevention programs get all their money from a 1 percent slice of lottery profits. But profits have fallen about 20 percent from their peak in 2008, driven largely by the bad economy and a 2009 smoking ban in bars and taverns. The lottery is projected to earn about $1 billion for 2009-11.

The drop in sales doesn’t mean there are fewer problem gamblers. Good times or bad, experts say, addicts keep playing — and losing.

“We should be redoubling our efforts, and instead we have to tread water just to stay afloat,” says Paul Potter, who oversees gambling addiction treatment for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Potter says he will be forced to dole out $1.2 million less than the programs were counting on between now and July 2011, when the current state budget period ends.

Taking a chance on recovery

Laura Idica knows what that would mean. She spent the past 10 months trying to break her habit of gambling on video machines, a habit that wrecked her family.

“I know where I’d be if I didn’t get help,” Idica says. “I’d be dead.”

On May 8 last year, Idica says, she went to a bluff overlooking the ocean at Yachats and peered over the edge. “Thirty feet up, sharp rocks and deep water below,” she says. “It would have done the trick.”

Her gambling habit had caused her to think about killing herself before. She had lived in Newport for 20 years, working lots of jobs, not staying anywhere too long. She suffered from depression and she drank too much.

Idica, 46, says her gambling problem started in full four years ago. She started with lottery scratch-off tickets, buying 20 at a time during her work breaks, sometimes blowing $100 a day. She moved on to the lottery’s video games, which include poker and slot machine-type games, and she lost entire paychecks to the machines.

She had left her family broke and homeless. They felt they could do better without her.

Addicted gamblers often make deals with themselves. Idica paused while she made one. She’d just gotten a check for $250. She’d bet it all. If she lost, she’d jump. If she won, she’d quit while she was ahead.

She really would quit this time. Really.

Idica took her cash to a bar, doubled her money on video games and walked away. “I’d never done that before,” she said.

But she hardly thought herself cured. She gave money to her 18-year-old son and went into gambling treatment the next day.

Anticipating reductions

Potter says he held back on some spending in anticipation of falling lottery profits but now has to cut. The reductions will be split about evenly between prevention programs and treatment and counseling. Most treatment is outpatient counseling through local agencies and nonprofits. The 24-hour gamblers’ help line will have a smaller staff but won’t reduce hours.

The state this year added $400,000 to beef up prevention and treatment programs in rural counties, where it’s often difficult to provide services. Those counties, depending on their size, will see the funding cut by 33 percent to 60 percent next year.

Kimberly Lindsay is executive director of Community Counseling Solutions, a mental health agency serving Morrow, Wheeler, Grant and Gilliam counties. She says the state money had allowed her group to develop services for problem gamblers and get the word out that someone in the community could help.

“Now that’s all caved in,” she says.

In their February session, lawmakers insulated some state programs dependent on the lottery, including the agency that recruits and subsidizes movie productions.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, says lawmakers protected lottery-dependent programs that need to make debt payments or that show an ability to create jobs.

“We’re addicted to this money,” Courtney says. “And it’s a serious problem that we’ve attached critical programs to it.”

“The lottery is raking in millions,” Idica says, “and they’re trying to sell us they don’t have the money to help the people who really need it, the people hooked on their games. It’s just not right.”

Idica ended up in the only state-funded residential program for gambling addicts, Bridgeway Recovery Services Inc. in Salem.

Bridgeway can handle up to 11 gambling addicts. After the cuts, that number will fall to two to four people.

Tim Murphy, Bridgeway’s executive director, says Oregon deserves credit for dedicating lottery profits to help addicted gamblers.

“We’ve seen an increase in people who need our services,” Murphy says. “While the 1 percent is something, it’s just not enough for the problems created by pathological gambling.”

Idica left Bridgeway on March 15 after 63 days in treatment. She says she’s happy — and aware she’s only one poor decision from falling back into her addiction. But the program, she says, has given her a circle of people she can call on to help.

She spoke about her experiences at Bridgeway’s offices. Near the end of a recent interview at Bridgeway’s office, she leaned forward and pointed to the reporter’s notebook.

“I know I need to tell you the sad story,” she says. “But don’t forget the hope. It gets hopeful. I hope to lead a happy life.”

She paused. “I am going to lead a happy life.”