Foss: State ill prepared to address problem gambling

James Maney of the NY Council on Problem Gambling talks during a panel discussion in 2015.
James Maney of the NY Council on Problem Gambling talks during a panel discussion in 2015.

Does the state have enough treatment programs for problem gamblers? 

Does it know how many problem gamblers there are in New York, or whether their ranks have grown as gaming has expanded throughout the state? 

Does it spend the money it allocates for gambling addiction treatment programs as wisely as it should, in the areas of greatest need? 

These are important questions, that, two years after the first of upstate New York’s four new Las Vegas-style casinos opened for business, are deserving of detailed and well-informed responses. 

Unfortunately, the answer to all of them appears to be some variation of “No idea.” 

That’s one of the main takeaways from an audit of state-run gambling treatment programs from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and it’s not reassuring. 

Given the state’s enthusiasm for gambling as a source of revenue, it really ought to know more about gaming’s impact on the people who live and work in communities, such as the Capital Region, with easy access to casinos. 

But if DiNapoli’s audit is to be believed, the state agency charged with ensuring that problem gamblers can get the help they need, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, is mostly operating in the dark. 

It’s been over 10 years since OASAS conducted a comprehensive needs assessment or social-impact study to identify the number or location of individuals in need of problem gambling treatment services. 

“Therefore,” the comptroller’s audit states, “we could not determine whether OASAS has sufficient treatment programs available for those in need.” 

The audit adds, “OASAS is taking various steps to identify and address the need for problem gambling treatment programs statewide. Given the enormous cost gambling addiction exacts on individuals and families, it is important OASAS continue these efforts.” 

What little we do know about the availability of treatment programs for problem gamblers isn’t pretty. 

Given the prevalence of gaming in New York, you’d think every county in the state would have an OASAS gambling treatment program.   

But most counties don’t. 

According to the audit, 40 of the state’s 62 counties do not have an OASAS problem gambling treatment program, and while there might be treatment providers outside the OASAS system, “OASAS does not have an accounting of these providers — or their location — and whether they accept clients regardless of their ability to pay.” 

In the Capital Region, Montgomery, Fulton and Saratoga counties lack an OASAS problem gambling treatment program.

When you consider Saratoga County’s status as a destination for bettors, the lack of a program there seems especially egregious, even astonishing. Of course, the need in Saratoga County is difficult to assess, given the fact that OASAS hasn’t done a proper needs assessment in 13 years. 

That said, I know from my conversations with Phil Rainer that there’s been a steady uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for a gambling addiction from The Center for Problem Gambling in Albany since Rivers Casino & Resort opened in Schenectady in 2017. 

Rainer is chief clinical officer at Capital Counseling, the non-profit organization that runs The Center for Problem Gambling. During one of our chats, he told me that “It’s a concern for us that the state is trying to increase revenue using an approach that has been known to be detrimental to the health of the community.” 

Even more concerning is the ignorance surrounding the negative consequences of opening new casinos, expanding state Lottery offerings and legalizing daily fantasy sports betting, as New York has done. And let’s not forget that the state is likely to legalize sports betting later this year at the four upstate non-Indian casinos. 

In a response to DiNapoli’s audit, Trisha R. Schell-Guy, the deputy counsel for OASAS, said that the agency would conduct a comprehensive needs assessment and social impact study on problem gambling “when funding is available.” 

The state needs to make this funding available, ASAP. 

Schull-Guy also noted that the state is opening seven new problem gambling resource centers. One of those centers is located on Great Oaks Boulevard in Guilderland. 

It’s great that the state is opening new problem gambling resource centers. 

But are they in the areas of greatest need? 

We have no way of knowing. 

The state has reaped the benefits of legalizing gambling, and it has an obligation to do what it can to mitigate the social costs that go along with making gaming more widely available. Right now, it appears to be shirking its responsibility. 

In fact, a conspiracy theorist might wonder whether the lack of knowledge highlighted by DiNapoli’s audit is by design — that the state would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the extent of its gambling problem, rather than marshal the resources necessary to address it.  

Whatever the case, the state needs to do better. 

And not just a little better. 

A lot better.  

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Opinion

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