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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

For Gambling Addicts, Center is a Lifesaver

20 May 2004

LAS VEGAS -- When Barbara found out about the Problem Gambling Center from a friend several months ago, she obtained approval from her insurance company to pay for part of the treatment expenses. But she didn't come in for her first therapy session for another three months.

"I was scared. I thought I could fix the problem myself without my husband finding out. There was a lot of financial damage done," said Barbara, who declined to give her last name. "When I walked into this program Monday, they almost had to carry me in. I was suicidal."

Barbara is one of an estimated 150 to 200 additional patients that the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas is expected to treat this year with the launch this month of its first daytime program for people who work graveyard or swing shifts.

The Problem Gambling Center, founded in 1986 and funded almost entirely from casino donations, is one of only a handful of treatment options in Nevada and the state's largest treatment center for compulsive gamblers.

The center's existing night program now treats about 200 to 250 people a year and consists of treatment sessions that run four nights a week for about two and a half hours a night. After six weeks, gamblers attend follow-up sessions once a week for a year and are encouraged to attend meetings of Gamblers Anonymous, a self-help group based on the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The center's day program, which duplicates the night program but is offered during traditional work hours, will help relieve the center's list of about 35 people who had been waiting for a slot to open up with the night program, organizers say. While it might only take a month or so for a spot to open, a few days can make a significant difference in the life of a person who is already in the last, self-destructive stage of a gambling addiction, they say.

Recently seven people were still waiting for treatment in evening sessions and two people were waiting for a slot in the day program. Each session is limited to about a dozen people so that they can feel comfortable connecting with a smaller group, organizers say.

The day program helps people who have said their work schedules conflict with the traditional evening program, Problem Gambling Center Chief Executive Mary Merritt said.

"This is a 24-hour town," Merritt said. "We know people don't work traditional 9-to-5 jobs."

Some people on a waiting list for the night program also have been able to switch to the daytime track, she said.

Barbara, 49, doesn't work but said the day program was the only choice that made sense for her.

"It was totally life-changing. This cuts right into the time I'd be going out gambling," she said. "The night program wouldn't work because I'd have to tell my husband where I was for two and a half hours."

The six-week therapy program costs about $2,000 per person in staff and resources, though participants are only charged a fraction of that at $5 per session.

The vast majority of insurance companies don't pay for problem gambling treatment, though a handful have begun paying for some of their customers' treatment costs in the past year, said Robert Hunter, clinical director of the center.

"When they do, they pay pennies on the dollar," however, he said.

More and higher donations from casino companies and others have funded the new program. The Problem Gambling Center's 2004 budget is $364,000 compared to $240,000 last year. New donors this year include slot maker Konami Gaming Inc. and the Cannery Casino in North Las Vegas.

Merritt calls the day program a "huge step forward" for the center but said progress still needs to be made. "If there's one person on a waiting list we still have a job to do," she said.

Separately, the Salvation Army in Las Vegas recently received $50,000 from MGM MIRAGE that will be used to help kick-start an outpatient program to treat problem gamblers.

The Salvation Army has long offered a residential program for alcohol and drug addiction and about a year ago began offering gambling treatment for people enrolled in the existing inpatient program. About 140 people are living at Salvation Army facilities, where they are receiving treatment for drug, alcohol and gambling problems. The new program will allow people to come in for treatment specifically for a gambling addiction, said Charles Desiderio, director of development and marketing for the Salvation Army in Clark County.

The director of the organization's adult rehabilitation program in Las Vegas, Terry Robinson, recently received the state's first certification to offer gambling counseling services. The state last year passed legislation requiring state certification of gambling addiction counselors.

"The big issue was not having the proper training," Desiderio said. "The money ... is going to be used to make sure we have adequate counselors."

The organization is soliciting other gaming companies to support the program, he said. Wells Fargo was the first company to make a donation to support the addition of gambling treatment as part of the alcohol and drug rehabilitation program.

Desiderio said he didn't know how many people the new program would be able to treat.

"We really don't know where this is going to go. What we do know is that it's out there. We just don't know the depth of it and we have to find that out."

Besides the Problem Gambling Center and the Salvation Army, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Las Vegas offers a problem gambling treatment program for veterans. Last year, Trimeridian Inc., a for-profit chain of gambling treatment centers, closed its office in Las Vegas. Local problem gambling experts said the lack of insurance coverage for gambling problems was to blame.

Organizers at the Problem Gambling Center say they'll likely always have people waiting to use their services; they expect the lines to grow as word spreads about the program.

Many people don't know about the center and are in dire need of help, Barbara said.

"This is the fourth time I've fallen off the wagon and I was going to GA (Gamblers Anonymous) meetings but wasn't connecting. This program goes much more in depth and is much more intense," Barbara said.

Unlike the self-help, group format of Gamblers Anonymous meetings, the center counsels people in small sessions led by a psychologist who guides the discussion of the participants' different stages of addiction. Gamblers also receive individualized counseling.

"It's very tough," Barbara said. "It has to be tough because if it wasn't we'd all be out gambling."