By Scott Van Voorhis
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
---- — Jodie spent nearly two years in prison after stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her employer to feed a raging addiction to slot machines at Foxwoods.
In recovery, she now works at a Boston-area nonprofit helping other compulsive gamblers get help, but she fears the rollout of casino gambling in Massachusetts could open the floodgates to more cases likes hers.
“I still don’t know what made me jump off the cliff, but I started to go to Foxwoods and starting playing the slots,” Jodie recalled. “It was pure escapism — it doesn’t make any rational sense. I ramped up very quickly to $100 slots and within six months, I had lost $300,000.”
As Massachusetts, New Hampshire and other states bet on a casino windfall, publicly funded gambling addiction programs are struggling to prepare for an increase in problem gambling, a review by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Massachusetts is committed on paper to spend millions on problem gambling programs once casinos are up and running in coming years.
However, amid a series of changes in the funding formula that have gone unreported in news outlets, the amount casinos will eventually have to pay each year toward problem gambling treatment has dropped by more than $20 million since Gov. Deval Patrick first rolled out plans for casinos in 2007.
And even as it promises future spending, Massachusetts has cut $560,000 from this fiscal year’s budget for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, the state’s main prevention and treatment program. That has put a dent in plans by the advocacy group to prepare for the rollout of three Las Vegas-sized casinos across the state.
Marlene Warner, the council’s executive director, says she now spends her time lobbying at the State House instead of planning new treatment programs.
“You have just expanded gambling,” Warner said she tells state officials. “We would like to have some time to better prepare this fairly inadequate treatment system.”
Advocates say the cuts leave Massachusetts and New England woefully unprepared to deal with a potential surge in problem gambling. There are no in-patient, detox-style treatment programs, while outpatient counseling, where it exists, is often clustered in a few urban locations, requiring long drives for many patients.
Patrick cuts back
The Patrick Administration’s decision to cut the budget of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, illustrates the problem, critics say.
After boosting the council’s budget from $1 million to slightly more than $1.8 million at the start of the fiscal year last July to help it prepare for the arrival of casino gambling, the governor cut that increase by more than $560,000 in December, said Margot Cahoon, a spokeswoman for the council.
That reduced the total to $1,270,000, where it will remain next year as well, according to the governor’s new budget.
To be effective, expanded gambling treatment programs need to be in place before casinos open, said Dr. Rachel Volberg, president of Northampton-based Gemini Research, which focuses on gambling and problem gambling.
Otherwise, compulsive gamblers may already be in deep trouble by the time programs are in place.
“You don’t want to wait until they are too far down the line and are in bankruptcy, committing crimes and going to jail,” Volberg said.
The budget reduction means the council has had to put on hold plans to double the number of locations across the state offering outpatient counseling for problem gambling, according to Warner, the council’s executive director.
Problem gambling counseling services are offered at 13 community health centers and clinics s across the state, but those sites are dedicated mainly to substance abuse issues, not problem gambling, according to a list on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s website. Five are in Boston or neighboring cities, with the rest spread across the state’s older cities.
It is a network that is badly needed, said Scott, a building contractor from the Pittsfield area, who burned through all his retirement savings and sold all his possessions to feed his addiction to slot machines at Mohegan Sun.
When he finally hit bottom, the only gambling addiction counselor he could find was an hour away in Amherst — with a month and a half appointment backlog.
“I was in dire straits,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, a tentative proposal for the state to team up with a private developer on an inpatient treatment center is out the window, Cahoon said.
Connecticut is now the only state in New England with an in-patient treatment center for gamblers. The Midwestern Connecticut Council on Alcoholism charges out-of-state patients $450 a day for a 1- to 3-week stay. Connecticut residents have their treatment covered by a state grant, said Jim Crean, director of outreach and community relations for the MCCA.
Years of research into the impact of new casinos on problem gambling points to the potential for a significant increase once slot machines and table games are within a short drive of most Bay State residents.
A federal panel in the late 1990s produced a landmark study on the relationship between the expansion of casinos and the number of problem gamblers.
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated that the number of problem gamblers roughly doubles within 50 miles of a new casino or slot complex.
In 2004, a study by John Welte of the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that problem gambling rates doubled again within 10 miles of a casino.
The cutback in funding for gambling addiction programs comes as Massachusetts has also cut back on the amount it will tax casinos in the state to support problem gambling services.
Gov. Patrick laid out a framework for the rollout of casinos in Massachusetts — and how compulsive gambling programs were to be funded — in 2007. It included an estimated $50 million to be set aside in a public health trust fund for use in treating gambling addiction.
But casino legislation passed in 2011 limited the dollar amount to 5 percent of all casino taxes collected by the state. Based on current revenue estimates, that would produce anywhere from $20 million to $25 million a year, said Jason Lefferts, director of communications for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, citing legislative estimates.
The change in the formula — which effectively cut the amount of money to be devoted to problem gambling in half — also corresponded with a drop in the overall tax rate on casinos from 27 to 25 percent.
Lefferts said he could not explain why the formula to fund gambling treatment changed. But Lefferts contends the current amount is still more than adequate to do the job.
“It is one of the largest financial commitments to address gambling addiction in the country,” he said.
Susan Tucker, a former Democratic state senator from Andover who led the opposition to expanded gambling for years in the Legislature, is not surprised that the state has scaled back its original commitment.
She said Massachusetts has a long history of promising big money for problem gambling programs, only to cut back later.
“It was one of the first things we cut years ago … the compulsive gambling account was slashed,” she said. “People didn’t take it very seriously.”
State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who played a key role in drafting the 2011 casino bill, questioned how much of an increase in gambling addiction Massachusetts will see given the amount of money Bay State residents are already spending on lottery tickets and at casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
But Warner of the Mass Council on Compulsive Gambling said no one should underestimate the impact that having a casino nearby will have on problem gambling.
“Connecticut is truly a drive for most folks,” she said. Having something in Boston is going to make a difference in people’s lives — I don’t care how much lottery you play.”
$25 million question
As it waits for money pledged years in the future, the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling still faces the challenge of preparing for the arrival of casinos on a budget that has long been inadequate, Warner contends.
In a 2009 report, the council argued its $1 million annual appropriation, when measured on a per capita basis, placed Massachusetts No. 18 in terms of spending on problem gambling programs.
The council made a case in that report that it needed $23 million each year just to keep up with current addiction problems sparked by the state’s multibillion-dollar lottery and slot machines in Connecticut and Rhode Island, let alone casino legalization in Massachusetts.
A national study in 2010 by the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators found that Massachusetts spent just 15 cents per resident on problem gambling services compared to a national average of 34 cents.
State officials say that once casinos open three or four years from now, they will pay up to $25 million a year for problem gambling initiatives. But advocates question how of that money will actually be used for those efforts as opposed to other substance abuse or social service programs.
The future revenue will be funneled into a “public health trust fund” controlled by state officials, Warner said.
She is confident that a chunk of the $25 million pot — a $5 million problem gambling fee that all three casinos will have to contribute to — will be used for treatment and prevention programs. Warner is less sure about the remaining $20 million, which she believes will be sought by other social service agencies.
“A lot of people are already thinking through how to spend that money,” Warner said.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by New England media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. Center intern Bill Frothingham contributed to this report.