After missteps, Nebraska's gambling assistance program 'rejuvenated'

Casino Slot Machine. (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)
Nebraska has several forms of legalized gambling, including pickle cards. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
(Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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May 20, 2014 - 6:30am

The number of people getting help for compulsive gambling in Nebraska shot up in the first quarter of 2014 after several years of gradual decline.  Rather than reflecting a sudden spike in the number of gamblers, some believe it signals the recovery of the state’s compulsive gambling treatment program.

Concerns with Nebraska’s system led the state Legislature to remove responsibility for the Gambler Assistance Program from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) late last year and turn it over to an independent commission.

Data compiled by the new Commission on Problem Gambling showed calls from people seeking help for themselves or a family member jumped 119 percent in the first three months of 2014.

Over the past several months the nine-member commission and its new executive director laid out plans to rebuild a network of counselors, establish new training for service providers, and resume collection of data about problem gamblers.

DHHS was given oversight of the program in 2003. Initially those providing and receiving services seemed satisfied with how the program was managed. Five years later full-time administration of the program was placed under the Division of Behavioral Health, which also handled other addiction services, like drugs and alcohol. Advocates for compulsive gambling services say it turned out to be a bad fit.

Between 2009 and 2012, under pressure to cut costs from Gov. Dave Heineman, DHHS cut spending on the 24-hour help line by 14 percent and reduced spending for treatment services by 20 percent, resulting in a reduction in the number of counselors offering gambling addiction services as part of their private practice. The number of problem gamblers getting treatment dropped by nearly 30 percent. At the same time availability of online wagering and nearby casino gambling was increasing for Nebraskans.

The process was “difficult to watch,” said Jerry Bauerkemper, the executive director of the Nebraska Council on Compulsive Gambling, the private non-profit, contracted to manage the state’s hotline. At one time Nebraska “had services that covered most of the state, but that has been slowly dwindling down.”

“We have lost ground in the past five years,” Bauerkemper said.

Last year the Nebraska Legislature pulled the Gambler’s Assistance Program out from DHHS and placed it under the umbrella of the Department of Revenue. (Read the legislation here) Some senators had concerns about the lack of resources being provided by DHHS. The change in state law gave oversight of the program to the independent Commission on Problem Gambling.

Mobile devices have made instant access to online gaming readily available and a temptation for problem gamblers. (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)

“We have more people, more gambling, more problems, but fewer people being served,” said David Geier, the newly-appointed executive director of the program. “I think that kind of situation was what motivated the Legislature to step in and rejuvenate the program.”

One of the Commission’s first actions was to bring the compulsive gambling hotline back to Nebraska. For a time the hotline was outsourced to a private company, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, which began routing calls from Nebraska problem gamblers to operators in Chicago. The company also changed the phone number, dropping the use of the familiar 1-800-BETS-OFF which had been heavily promoted throughout the region. DHHS claimed the new number, spelling out the word GAMBLER would be easier to remember, but calls from those in need dropped steadily.

Grier noted the hotline handled 275 total calls last year and received more than 1,000 in the first six months since returning it to a Nebraska-based operation. “We are catching up with the demand we think was always up there but somehow or another, was not making its way to these offices,” Grier said.

Bauerkemper felt the state, by reporting calls for help were declining, was giving the public a false impression about the extent of gambling addiction in the state. He began to hear ‘‘there is no problem in our state because there are no calls,’” but quickly adding “well, that’s not true.”

During a recent visit to the hotline’s tiny storefront office near downtown Bellevue, Nebraska, Susan Hogenson was taking calls in the middle of the morning. She calmly explained to a concerned person from Auburn how they could connect with a counselor who could provide advice for a relative with a possible gambling problem.

Betting on sports has been especially attractive to a new generation of young gamblers. (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)

“A lot of times they are the people who have hit rock bottom,” Hogenson said, listing all of the things she’s heard from desperate callers. “I can’t pay my rent. They are going to shut off my utilities. I can’t make my car payment because I just sat at the casino and gambled away my paycheck.”

She sees the hotline as an essential lifeline for desperate gamblers and their families.

“Some people will be so grateful at the end of the phone call because there was someone who answered the phone and someone who listened to them at a time when they needed to be heard and helped.”

With the hotline back in Nebraska, the commission is now trying to rebuild a network of counselors specially trained to help clients with a gambling addiction and their families. While DHHS ran the program the number of providers had “drastically been reduced” according to commission chair Ed Hoffman in recent testimony before the Legislature. He reported “much of western Nebraska does not have the ability to see services” for their compulsive gambling problems. A majority of the state’s residents in the western half of the state “are outside of a 50-mile range of providers” with the required certification for the type of treatment needed. The growing popularity of online gambling in rural areas increased the need for treatment options outside the major metropolitan areas. Sales of the state sponsored Powerball and MegaMillion games have also increased in recent years.

“We have to recognize also that if we are promoting this we may also be inadvertently or unwittingly contributing to a problem,” Grier said. “We owe it to ourselves to deal with this problem. We owe it to ourselves to make this service available.”

To meet the demand new counselors are being recruited in underserved areas of the state. Bellevue University has been contracted to prepare a new training program for counselors to be made available online in the hopes it will be easily accessible to service providers outside of Nebraska’s two largest cities.

Especially frustrating for advocates was the reluctance of DHHS to spend funds specifically collected and set aside for the program. “The program is paid for by the people who play the games because the money comes out of the portion that is withheld of the proceeds of these games,” Grier explained.

When Nebraska legalized the lottery in 1992 voters also required a certain percentage of the revenue from ticket sales be dedicated to funding programs designed to prevent problem gambling and to help those who got in too deep. The pool of money grew to just short of $2 million. Annual reports filed by DHHS indicate each year less and less of the dedicated funds made it to assistance programs for gamblers.

When the Legislature took away the program from DHHS the commission found it had to essentially rebuild the program from scratch.

Testifying before the state Legislature’s Appropriations Committee earlier this year, commission president Hoffman told the senators “when we took over the program, we had no contracts with the providers. They had to end it when DHHS had stopped the program. We had no workforce development plan. We had no 800-number. We had no ability to provide services to minors. We had no website that was available to provide information about the program or providers, that individuals could seek information. We had no secure data system.”

The Legislature agreed to provide an additional quarter of a million dollars over the next two years to get the services back in place, overriding Gov. Heineman’s attempt to veto the money. The goal is to make the programs largely self-supporting, but demand for the services will drive costs.

“It’s up to the commissioners, and how far they want to push it,” Grier said, “but I think what we anticipate is the more awareness there is the more need there will be for the money.”

Meanwhile, calls to the problem gambling hotline continue to increase, which both pleases and frustrates Jerry Bauerkemper.

“It took a while to fix it, but the great news is that people are coming," Bauerkemper said.  "But the sad news is they didn’t come before, but they did come now.”



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