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Comptroller: State has failed to assess human toll of gambling expansion

Comptroller: State has failed to assess human toll of gambling expansion

Newly-released audit reveals that problem gambling treatment programs are available in only 22 of New York's 62 counties
Comptroller: State has failed to assess human toll of gambling expansion
Plenty of vehicles are parked outside the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 6.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

ALBANY -- New York has seen an explosion of state-authorized gambling over the past 13 years, including new casinos in Schenectady, Buffalo and other upstate locations, new lottery betting, daily fantasy sports offerings and a new sports gambling effort.

But it has been more than a decade and three governors since the state government last conducted any comprehensive, statewide study examining gambling addiction problems in order to get a better understanding where and how to invest taxpayer money in treatment programs.

The concerns are raised in a new audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who says state-run gambling treatment has not been offered in large areas of the state, including those with new state-sanctioned gambling outlets, according to a copy of the audit obtained by The Buffalo News.

The Democratic comptroller's auditors looked at the failure by the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to gather the kinds of information such gambling "prevalence" studies have revealed in New York and other states over the years.

"The agency is taking steps to expand problem gambling services, but it has not done enough to assess the impact of casinos on addiction or ensured enough treatment programs exist," DiNapoli said in a statement.

"Gambling addiction destroys lives and families. When New York expanded casino gaming, it took on the responsibility of making sure there were adequate services to meet the rise in addiction that comes with it," he added.

The state agency, known as OASAS and run by the administration of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, did not disagree with DiNapoli about the need to conduct a thorough gambling study.

"OASAS agrees with this recommendation and when funding is available we will seek to perform a study to determine the need for problem gambling services," it wrote in December to DiNapoli's auditors in its response to the criticism.

The audit says there is a basic question raised by the state not having undertaken in 13 years a comprehensive "needs assessment" or "social impact study" on gambling: Are the "limited resources" of OASAS being spent where the need is most?

Auditors had a simple answer: They have no way of knowing.

The audit further noted that OASAS problem gambling treatment programs are available in only 22 of the state's 62 counties, with many more than a county away from residents who might need treatment services. It noted five counties in Western New York do not have OASAS gambling programs. When a problem gambler calls a statewide hotline seeking help, they are referred to two places: one of the OASAS programs and Gamblers Anonymous.

While there are private counselors and others in counties not directly served by OASAS programs, auditors said the anti-addiction agency does not have an accounting of such alternative treatment outlets, or even their addresses or if they provide help to people via an ability-to-pay system.

New York has seen a rush of new ways to gamble. Often, the gambling has been approved by governors, including Cuomo, as ways to bring more tax revenues into the state budget. Often, the justification for the added gambling is a simple one: Other nearby states are doing it, so New York needs to keep up.

Since the last major statewide gambling prevalence study, the new gambling avenues have been many:

  • The Seneca Nation added a casino in Buffalo to its Niagara Falls and Salamanca locations.
  • The Oneida Nation of Indians has opened two more casinos in central New York.
  • Daily fantasy sports wagering has been legalized.
  • The Lottery has expanded its offerings, including multi-state, big jackpot games.
  • New casinos with thousands of slot-like video lottery terminals have opened in Queens and Suffolk County.

The biggest expansion came in 2013, when Cuomo, legislators and voters statewide approved a change in the state constitution to permit up to seven new commercial casinos. Four of those casino licenses have since been awarded to upstate locations from Seneca County to the Catskills. The Seneca Nation is looking at whether to offer sports betting at its three casinos.

The Cuomo administration last month also approved preliminary regulations to permit in-person sports gambling at the four upstate commercial casinos. Some lawmakers, along with gambling industry companies, are seeking to expand sports gambling so consumers could bet via their computer or smart phone anywhere in the state.

The 2013 law included a fee on those four casino operators of $500 per slot machine, the proceeds of which were to go to address problem gambling services. One group, the New York Council on Problem Gambling, was awarded a three-year, $9.6 million state contract to open seven regional centers to address problem gambling.

The audit noted OASAS has been expanding treatment -- both inpatient and outpatient -- across the state, but that funding is limited. In 2016, the audit said, New York spent 16 cents per capita on problem gambling services; that ranked 27th of the 45 states with such publicly funded services.

The audit found OASAS has taken a number of steps to address problem gambling since the state's embrace of additional gambling outlets. "We recognize OASAS' efforts to address gaps in problem gambling treatment services," the audit said.

It noted OASAS in 2017 began offering gambling treatment services at six of its Addiction Treatment Centers.

Additionally, seven new "Resource Centers" will be opening -- funded via proceeds from slot machine fees paid by the four casinos -- that will work on both prevention and treatment of problem gambling. OASAS says the program, due to be operational by August, will place private treatment practitioners available in each county.

Those centers are also charged with working with casinos to try to refer problem gamblers to treatment.

If the $3.3 million that the state will spend on those seven centers over three years should run out, auditors said, "additional funding for the participating private practitioners would likely be unavailable."

"An impact study would measure the prevalence of problem gambling, as well as the consequences and costs, and would inform the development of policy and the allocation of resources," the audit said.

But, several times in the audit, officials said it is uncertain if OASAS has "an accurate understanding of where services are most needed and may incorrectly allocate its services" without having the benefit of a comprehensive statewide gambling prevalence study. OASAS did a limited study of middle and high school students -- conducted in 2014 in 33 counties -- that looked at a number of "problem behaviors," including dropping out of school, teen pregnancy and associations between substance abuse and gambling.

In its response to auditors, OASAS highlighted that it has "met the statutory and regulatory obligations" regarding problem gambling services. It said absent a statewide study, the agency is asking counties to identify problem gambling treatment needs that will allow OASAS to produce a report on gambling treatment needs.

That report will not come out until 2020, the agency said.

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