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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

$2.5 Million Marked to Treat Gamblers

8 February 2006

About 3,000 compulsive gamblers in Nevada, including their friends and families, are expected to soon get help in battling the addiction with an infusion of taxpayer money that will be doled out over the next year and a half.

While the absolute numbers may not seem big, grant recipients say the money will make a big difference in the lives of people who have hit bottom and are least likely to afford counseling and other assistance.

"This is something we had wanted to do for years, but we couldn't raise the money and there was no state vehicle to raise funds," said Charlie Desiderio, a spokesman for the Salvation Army of Clark County. "Before, you were given some money but you couldn't sustain the effort. They were one-time gifts or donations."

At its most recent meeting last month, the state Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling selected seven Nevada treatment groups that will receive a piece of an estimated $1.5 million in grant money to treat problem gamblers. That's the largest chunk of a total $2.5 million that will go toward treatment, education and research programs to help problem gamblers.

The nine-member committee, created by the 2005 Legislature, has not yet finalized the amount of each treatment grant. It has begun accepting a second round of applications for prevention programs such as education in public schools and workplaces. All of the grants will be finalized by the committee's next meeting March 29.

The $2.5 million in grants will fund programs through June 2007. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, which is administering the problem gambling grant program, will need to return to the Legislature to get approval to continue the funding.

The grant money - a small fraction of the slot machine taxes the state collects annually from casinos - marks the first time that Nevada has used taxpayer dollars to help problem gamblers.

The practice has been part of the regulatory system in other states that have casinos but was resisted for years in Nevada until it eventually received the backing of Gov. Kenny Guinn and key casino companies.

All of the eligible applicants received a piece of the treatment money. Of the nine applicants, one dropped out of the running and the other must still submit more information to be considered.

The Problem Gambling Center - the only public, nonprofit clinic in Nevada devoted to problem gambling treatment - received the biggest chunk of the grant money.

The center expects to use the money - estimated at more than $415,000 - to maintain its existing treatment program in Las Vegas and add a "crisis care" program that would consist of smaller group meetings or individual counseling for people in need of immediate intervention, Operations Director Chris Drew said.

The money will also help the center eliminate its waiting list, which often has a dozen or more names, Drew said.

Another piece of the grant money will be used to create an outreach program in Las Vegas for the elderly that may include sessions at senior centers as well as individual counseling in residents' homes.

Some people who need help are infirm and unable to get to the treatment center for group sessions during the week, the center's Clinical Director Robert Hunter said.

"I still think the senior population is underserved," Hunter said.

Some of the money will be used to establish a similar treatment center in Reno, where the Problem Gambling Center is renting a house and has begun treating a handful of gamblers. The Reno treatment center is expected to help up to 150 people over the next year and a half. The Las Vegas center now treats about 175 people per year.

Two additional programs the Problem Gambling Center hoped to start with the grant money - a program to help the friends and families of problem gamblers and a financial assistance program - didn't receive enough of the money to get off the ground.

Most of the other grant recipients have specialized in alcohol and drug abuse counseling over the years and have only recently begun treating gamblers as part of their programs.

Drew said the Problem Gambling Center welcomes other treatment programs.

"We're probably the experts at what we do but our facilities are limited," she said. "We don't mind other treatment centers as long as they're doing it right."

Laura Hale, chief of the Grants Management Unit of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said the applications were "strong" and demonstrated experienced treatment programs.

The committee chose to spread the money among various types of programs, including intensive, residential programs, group sessions for larger numbers of people and small, individual counseling efforts, Hale said.

Treatment centers that serve alcoholics and drug addicts have long known that many of their patients also have gambling problems.

"All the statistics indicate that people with a substance abuse problem are more likely to have a gambling problem than people from the general population," Desiderio said.

The Salvation Army, which runs a treatment center in North Las Vegas, will use the grant money to introduce gambling treatment to its existing residential program for alcoholics and drug addicts. It will also begin an 8-week outpatient program devoted to gambling treatment that will include group sessions, educational classes and individual counseling a few times a week.

The Salvation Army aims to treat at least 60 people per year in its outpatient program.

The state's major population centers weren't the only areas to receive assistance.

A treatment program in Fallon that treated more than 500 people last year also will receive some of the grant money.

New Frontier Treatment Center offers services in rural Northern Nevada including Elko, Ely, Lovelock and Hawthorne. The center, founded in 1971, began serving people with alcohol and drug abuse problems but also sees people with gambling problems.

"Hardly anybody walks through the door with just a substance abuse problem," Executive Director John Shields said.

"Every one of those little towns has casinos," Shields added. "There's less to do and there's less distractions."