Counselors for gambling addictions voice concern about funding for problem

Gambling addiction counselors and former addicts told the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission on Friday that they are worried about losing state funding to treat the problem.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2014 budget appears to entirely eliminate funds to treat problem gambling, Stephenie Roberts, a Kansas certified gambling counselor and member of the South Central Problem Gambling Task Force, told commissioners during a meeting in Mulvane.

Reducing access to treatment would increase crime, suicide and bankruptcy among people addicted to gambling, she said.

The law that created state-owned casinos in Kansas requires that 2 percent of the gambling revenue from those casinos go to the Problem Gambling and Addictions Grant Fund. So far, Roberts said, the state has allocated only 9 percent of that 2 percent to problem gambling services.

“The state is basically robbing the gamblers of the protection that the Legislature put in place,” she said.

Racing and gaming commissioners had heard this message before and were sympathetic to her concerns.

“You are preaching to the choir,” Jay Shadwick, commission chairman, told Roberts. “This is a great concern to us, too.”

In Topeka, some lawmakers have been complaining that the problem gambling fund has been used to make up for budget shortfalls and used on programs not included in the law governing how gambling revenues are spent.

This year, the state budgeted $740,000 of the more than $9 million generated for the fund by the three state-owned casinos — the Kansas Star in Mulvane, the Boot Hill in Dodge City, and the Hollywood in Wyandotte County — for problem gambling. Most of the money — $6.5 million — went to Medicaid for services for other addictions.

Brownback’s office referred an inquiry about its budgeting plans for the fund to the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the fund.

Angela de Rocha, director of communications for the department, said that reduced gambling revenue this year caused the governor to reduce funding for problem gambling programs in his 2014 budget to avoid overspending the fund.

But, she said, the state will offset the reduction by moving $946,000 from substance abuse treatment programs to problem gambling.

“The bottom line is that problem gambling is going to continue to be funded,” de Rocha said.

Roberts said that a letter from an official in the department said problem gambling services from January through June this year will be paid out of the state general fund instead of the problem gambling fund.

“Limiting it to the state budget is, in my opinion, an effort to wipe us out altogether,” she said.

“Is the state opening itself up to lawsuits for mishandling and misrepresenting to the citizens of south-central Kansas how that 2 percent fund is to be used?” Roberts asked commissioners. “What about our moral commitment to the gamblers at those casinos?”

Shadwick said the racing and gaming commission had no control over what happens to the fund, but could continue to be an advocate for it.

“We are doing all that we can,” he said. “We will try to continue in some way to do more.”

JoAnn Briles-Klein, a state-licensed certified gambling counselor in Wichita, told commissioners she sees people who have divorced over gambling and who have lost their entire retirement and education savings.

She said there is a 20 percent suicide rate among problem gamblers, the highest percentage of any clinical population.

While most of the fund is going to services provided by Medicaid, none of her clients is on Medicaid, she said. Most are retired or working.

“This is a huge problem, and it will be shifted to the taxpayers, where it never should be shifted,” Briles-Klein said.

The state’s problem gambling help-line would go away if funds aren’t available, she said.

A woman who identified herself as Judy W. said she has been in recovery from an addiction to gambling for four and a half years and told commissioners she used the help-line and another state program to start to turn her life around.

She urged the state to retain money to support that help for other problem gamblers.

“The state promised to take care of it, but they’re not,” she said.

The state’s problem gambling help line is 800-522-4700.