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Is Illinois gambling with addiction?
The state falls short in help for addicts, despite reaping billions from gambling losses
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in Peoria offers the only local inpatient treatment for gambling addicts, but it receives no state funding for such services.


Courtesy Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery

Minnesota's Project Turnabout in Granite Falls is funded by the state to provide inpatient treatment to gambling addicts.


Courtesy Project Turnabout

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Published: 7/21/2008 12:05 AM

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Second of three parts

For Meg, the weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings didn't work.

"I just did it to show my husband and my family I didn't have a problem," says the middle-class suburban mother of two.

That way, she could continue dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars - most of it in credit card advances and casino loans - into video poker machines as she drove her family into bankruptcy after embezzling from her boss.

Meg's addiction had spiraled from seemingly innocent weekly bingo nights to daily casino visits once the boats opened in her hometown, Joliet.

Like a heroine addict, Meg says she couldn't stop.

The addiction controlled Meg for years, slowly eroding her family life as she found conniving ways to get back to the casinos. It was a full 10 years until her family - desperate to stop her - found a solution.

Meg's husband spirited her into inpatient treatment for 30 days at a Peoria hospital, the only such program in Illinois specializing in gambling disorders.

The intense therapy, plus the fact Meg couldn't easily escape from the hospital, finally proved a winning combination against an addiction so powerful it often drives victims to suicide.

"I have a wonderful life now," says Meg, a nurse who agreed to talk about her experience with gambling addiction, but asked to conceal her last name to shelter her family from embarrassment.

Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars Meg lost at the casinos - up to half of which went straight to state coffers, Illinois did not chip in for the $12,000 treatment needed to loosen the grips of her addiction.

Today, countless gambling addicts are left without the necessary treatment because many have wagered their last dollar after losing their jobs and alienating friends and family.

A Daily Herald review of the state's casino industry reveals that Illinois falls far short compared to other states in helping gambling addicts even though their tremendous losses bolster the state's bank account, allowing lawmakers to avoid unpopular tax hikes.

This has left a safety net riddled with holes for a projected 384,622 adults in Illinois who are problem or pathological gamblers.

Moreover, with casino expansion once again on the table for lawmakers eyeing a $34 billion public works plan, the state has not spent any money to research the impact of gambling since the lottery was created in 1973 or casinos were legalized in 1990.

The absence of any local research has left lawmakers and the public in the dark about any damage legalized gambling has done to Illinois communities.

"They need to increase funding by an exponential amount," said Jeremy Geller, president of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling, which is attempting to unify the hodgepodge of treatment services available in the state. The council does not oppose legalized gambling, but advocates for the treatment of addicts.

Experts like Geller say it's vital to strike a balance between the potential benefits of legalized gambling - tax revenue, jobs and economic development, among them - and the potential damage that addiction can do to a community via bankruptcies, suicide and crime.

Treatment shorted

"The numbers speak for themselves," Geller added.

In 2001, lawmakers penned the first budget line to fund awareness and treatment programs. But the initial set aside of $1.5 million was reduced the next year to $960,000, where it has stayed ever since.

The state takes more than $700 million a year from nine casinos and about another $600 million from the state-run lottery, which sells tickets at thousands of locations.

Between 1995 and 2007, the state took in a total of $13.5 billion from legalized gambling and spent $7.3 million on treatment or awareness campaigns.

When presented with the disparity, some lawmakers say there is no extra cash in the state's $52 billion budget to bolster treatment or research programs.

"I think it is going to be hard to find the money to provide in this area," said state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat and lieutenant to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Others disagree, but they often find themselves in the minority.

"If you are willing to generate money off the backs of people who go through these casinos then there should be some money there to cover the agony that causes," said state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican. "To totally overlook it, I think, is just a bunch of baloney."

Proposals to boost gambling treatment funding often only gain traction when lawmakers periodically look at gambling expansion to raise revenue without increasing taxes.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and several top lawmakers are now angling to add hundreds of slot machines to racetracks, a new megacasino in Chicago and perhaps another one in the suburbs. The expansion would fund a $34 billion public works program.

Yet addiction specialists says it's convenient for lawmakers to avoid the problems created by legalized gambling by failing to spend money to study it or increase treatment funding.

"It makes problem gambling easier to ignore and more difficult to bring out into the light," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, which is not opposed to legalized gambling.

"(Politicians) care very much to make sure every cent of gambling tax revenue is collected, but not so much that major social costs are measured, much less addressed," he continued.

Mulligan agrees.

"They don't want to call attention to the fact that casinos are causing problems for real people," she said.

The shortfall in Illinois treatment and research is clear when comparing it to other Midwestern states.

Indiana, Michigan and Iowa have much smaller populations than Illinois' 12.8 million, but lawmakers there set aside between three and four times as much for treatment, research and awareness.

But where that money goes sometimes matters more than the amount.

Minnesota spends $2.5 million on treatment and research and it has one of the most highly acclaimed programs in the United States.

When a problem gambler needs inpatient treatment in Minnesota, it is available for free.

In Illinois, a similar, 90-day treatment program would cost nearly $30,000.

Intense treatment

Few problem gamblers have that kind of money.

Meg considered herself lucky to have her treatment covered by insurance because she was technically treated for depression.

"Most gamblers are busted, that is the nature of their addiction," says Wayne Burdick, director of the Outreach Foundation, which provides counseling for problem gamblers in Downers Grove. "Where are they going to get the money to pay for this kind of treatment?"

Burdick said he knows three problem gamblers who had to be smuggled into Minnesota's inpatient program. He said they were each on the brink of suicide when they were sent there to establish temporary residency so they could get the needed help.

Minnesota's Project Turnabout has a relatively high 90 percent completion rate. Every year it treats about 180 gambling addicts, the great majority of whom have state subsidized treatment, CEO Mike Schiks says. The state gives Turnabout about $400,000 a year.

Schiks says the program works for some of the worst gambling addicts because of its intensity, much like detox treatments can work for drug addicts or alcoholics when group meetings and therapy fail.

Patients at Turnabout stay in one facility with regimented therapy meetings, detailed psychiatric evaluations, and help for planning finances and for reconnecting with family and friends.

"It is so tragic when you run into a compulsive gambler," Schiks said. "People would just be amazed at what these compulsions drive them to do."

Minnesota state funding created Turnabout's gambling treatment when the state's lottery was legalized in 1989. The state also is home to 15 Native American casinos.

"The biggest thing we are finding is that there needs to be options," said Don Feeney, research and planning director for the Minnesota Lottery. "Some people need a residential treatment program and we are dealing with a program that does attract a fair number of people from outside the state."

Iowa offers a similar program to its residents. The state provides temporary residences for those diagnosed with problem gambling and then constructs a strict regimen of counseling and analysis.

If the problem gambler doesn't have money, the program is free.

"I think there is a recognition that with (legalized gambling) comes an obligation to serve those who find themselves in trouble with it," said Mark Vander Linder, coordinator of Iowa's gambling treatment program.

Iowa lawmakers provide about $4.3 million for treatment programs by directing half a percentage point of gambling revenues to a dedicated fund. Iowa has 20 casinos and a state lottery.

In Illinois, the lone inpatient treatment center for gambling addiction receives no state funding.

Still, the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital in Peoria treats nearly 100 people a year who either have insurance to cover their expenses or have the cash in hand.

The program is similar to Turnabout in Minnesota and Iowa's residency program.

Coleen Moore, the Peoria institute's resource development coordinator, said addicts usually need inpatient treatment when they have easy access to gambling or if they remain in denial about their addiction.

"One of the big things that gets an individual in the door is their debt. And it is usually not the gambler that says, 'Oh, I need help,'" she said. "It is usually their family members or employers who may have done an intervention."

A hidden problem

Because of the lack of state research, experts don't have a firm handle on how many people in Illinois need treatment or how many can't afford what they need.

More than 2,000 people call Illinois' problem gambling help line every year seeking treatment for themselves or a family member. And 4,066 Illinois addicts have so far chosen to ban themselves from the state's casinos in an effort to quit.

Yet, the actual number of gambling addicts is likely much higher. According to industry-accepted standards provided by the National Council on Problem Gambling, 1 percent of the adult population consists of pathological gamblers and another 3 percent are problem gamblers.

Given Illinois' adult population of 9.6 million, the state may be home to about 384,000 gambling addicts.

Without treatment, experts say many of these addicts drown in debt, destroy family relationships and some commit criminal acts for cash or contemplate suicide.

Several Chicago area treatment programs report the need is outpacing the publicly-funded options available to addicts.

"We are seeing people now where I can't place them anywhere," Burdick said. "It is getting really scary."

One indicator of a growing need is the number of Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

Burdick estimates that in the mid 1990s, the Chicago area had about 19 meeting in groups of about a dozen people.

Today, the region has more than 70 weekly meetings with about 25 people at each one. That would amount to an increase from about 228 people attending meetings to 1,750.

Burdick's Outreach Foundation survives on $85,000 a year from the state and a handful of small donations from supporters. With that, a staff of three provide discounted counseling for dozens of problem gamblers and run several Gamblers Anonymous groups.

This is a similar set up to other treatment programs in the state.

Round Lake-based Nicasa mainly serves as a substance abuse treatment center. But it received $30,000 from the state last year to designate a counselor to dedicate part of his time to treating gambling addiction.

Nicasa communications director Bill Hetland said the agency usually treats gambling addiction in combination with other abuse problems.

The true breadth of problem gamblers in the state is not accurately reflected by the numbers seeking treatment because so few believe it is a problem that can be treated, Hetland contends.

"There are still a lot of people who don't see this as a disease yet," he said. "But with the growth of casinos, more and more people are going to need these services."

Of the $960,000 set aside for problem gambling in Illinois, $680,952 is doled out in grants to organizations like Nicasa and the Outreach Foundation.

Last fiscal year the money was split among at least 13 different organizations, with seven receiving $30,000 or less.

The state also spends about $100,000 on public awareness campaigns, $18,000 for a hot-line, $47,000 for training seminars and $80,000 on administration.

Over the last fiscal year, 1,053 people were treated for problem gambling with state funds, said Tom Green, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Resources.

All of that treatment was outpatient or Gamblers Anonymous based.

For many addicts, such treatment programs will work if they commit to stop gambling. But there are also many addicts like Meg, who just couldn't get off the video poker with counseling or a 12-step program and a circle of folding chairs.

"I owe it all to the inpatient program," she says after seven years of not gambling. "But there are a lot of people without insurance that will pay for that. They have lost their jobs and homes. How are they going to come up with that? They are living in their cars."

Coming Tuesday: A disproportionate number of problem gamblers who ban themselves from casinos live in cities with riverboat gambling.