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Gaming Guru

Jeff German

Columnist Jeff German: A Big Step to Help Gambling Addicts

24 January 2006

Nevada and its gaming industry are making history again today.

The state's Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling meets in Las Vegas to hand out taxpayer dollars to fund treatment programs for the addicted.

This has never occurred in the 75 years that gambling has been legal in Nevada.

Backed by Gov. Kenny Guinn, several key lawmakers and a casino industry that began to develop a conscience, the 2005 Legislature created the nine-member committee and funded it with $2.4 million in slot machine taxes through June 2007.

But if we play our cards right, today's moment in history will be just the start of dealing with a problem that has been ignored for too long.

And if you don't think the state's involvement in gambling addiction is a welcome sight to health care and social service providers, consider the panel's daunting task today.

It has 13 applicants requesting nearly $3 million in funding, but only $1.5 million in grants to hand out.

"This illustrates that there's a tremendous need here, which we've been saying all along," says Dr. Robert Hunter, a clinical psychologist who runs the overcrowded Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas.

Hunter has submitted five separate requests for money, including an application for $367,921 to start up a first-ever gambling addiction treatment center in Reno.

The Salvation Army is looking for $221,375 to launch a treatment center in Las Vegas, and UNLV's Center for Individual, Couple and Family Counseling wants to include problem gambling in its outpatient services with a request for $277,238.

"We've got a lot of strong applications," says Laura Hale, chief of the Grants Management Unit of the Nevada Health and Human Services Department. "These are people who have been doing this with limited funds in the past."

Hale's boss, Health and Human Services Director Mike Willden, is elated with the outpouring of interest for the money the state has to offer.

"This is great news that we have so much of a demand," he says.

But Willden also worries that those who don't get what they've requested today might, out of frustration, consider directing their efforts away from problem gambling in the future.

That would not be good -- which brings to mind the ace-in-the-hole in the law that created the advisory committee.

The problem gambling fund was set up to be a partnership between the public and private sectors.

The law allows Willden's agency to accept private donations from, you guessed it, the casino industry.

With the industry recording record profits again, it's going to have plenty of money to make up for those years of turning the other cheek to the very problem it created.

Plenty of eyes are watching big gaming now.

Just how it deals with its long-neglected responsibilities is how history will judge Nevada's success in treating the addicted.