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The Day – Magnitude of increase in calls to problem gambling ‘helpline’ took many by surprise

The Day - Magnitude of increase in calls to problem gambling 'helpline' took many by surprise
Written by publisher team

Virtually everyone expected the advent of online casino gaming and sports betting in Connecticut to prompt an uptick in calls to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling’s “helpline,” which counsels callers, often referring to them to state-run treatment programs.

Now, few would describe what’s unfolded as an “uptick,” which suggests a slow, gradual rise.

“I didn’t think it would increase this fast,” Diana Goode, the council’s executive director, said in a phone interview. “Normally, it takes a problem gambler a while to hit rock bottom and raise their hand. I thought we’d have six months to a year to sort things out, but people are losing everything in a weekend. The speed with which people are losing all their money has been shocking as far as I’m concerned.”

Goode made news last month when she publicly described the increase in the volume of helpline calls since October, the month southeastern Connecticut casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. launched new forms of gambling the legislature had approved just months before.

At a Jan. 24 informational forum, Goode told the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee that the number of helpline calls had quadrupled. In November, they were up 87% over the same month the previous year. Since then, the year-over-year increases have grown each month.

According to the council, from October through January, calls were up 122% over the same period a year ago.

In her testimony, Goode made sure not to sugarcoat the seriousness of the dire situations callers have reported. She told the panel she and the two other council employees handling the helpline traffic — “calls” come in by text and internet chat as well as by phone to (888) 789-7777 — heard some Monday mornings from people who had “lost everything betting on sports the preceding weekend.

That means the helpline could be busy this coming Monday, the day after the Super Bowl, Goode said.

“I made sure to raise a red flag,” she said of her Jan. 24 presentation. “I don’t want the legislature to come back to me in a year and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us it was so bad?’

Based on the helpline calls she’s taken, Goode said she hopes “something really bad is going to happen,” meaning a problem gambler’s suicide.

Among those with mental health issues, problem gamblers have the highest suicide rate, she said.

Self-exclusion not perfect

One caller, a father in his 60s, called about his 40-year-old son who had maxed out his credit card while gambling online and then had opened another account in his wife’s name and maxed out her credit card, as well. What kind of protections are available in such situations, the father wanted to know. The helpline offered counseling and a referral to a Bettor Choice treatment program, of which there are 16 across the state. In eastern Connecticut, problem-gambling services are available through United Community & Family Services in Norwich.

In another case, a male college student emptied his parents’ bank account during a weekend gambling spree and, when his parents discovered it, told them it was a banking error. At that point, the student called the helpline.

A problem gambler who hadn’t gambled in more than a year and who thought he had been self-excluded from all gambling received a gaming promotion via email, signed up for an online account and got hooked all over again.

In theory, the self-exclusion programs put in place by Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun and the state give those addicted to gambling foolproof protection against their own impulses. But in reality, Goode said, it’s unclear how effective they are.

“If you ask, many of the people who sign up are still gambling,” she said. “The bottom line is you just can’t win a jackpot.”

By signing one of the casino self-exclusion forms, a person bans himself from that particular casino.

“Exclusion means you may not be employed by the MPGE (Foxwoods) in any capacity and may not be in the Foxwoods Resort Casino for any reason,” Foxwoods’ self-exclusion application reads.

Similarly, Mohegan Sun’s form states that those who sign up for self-exclusion will be excluded from the Mohegan Sun premises, “including but not limited to all properties owned and managed by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority d/b/a Mohegan Sun.”

A self-excluded person who returns to Mohegan Sun is subject to arrest for trespassing “and all jackpot winnings will be forfeited,” the form reads. Foxwoods states it “will make reasonable efforts” to deny a self-excluded person access to the casino, but “will accept no responsibility” if a self-excluder fails to comply with the terms of the exclusion.

Casino officials acknowledge that some candidates for self-exclusion may refrain from signing up because they don’t want to be banned from the casino altogether. They may need to forgo gambling but still want to attend a show, a restaurant or a basketball game.

Mohegan Sun offers self-exclusion for durations of one or five years or for life. A person who has self-excluded for one or five years must request in writing that their exclusion be rescinded. Foxwoods offers a five-year exclusion that is automatically rescinded at the end of the fifth year, and a permanent exclusion.

In the case of a permanent exclusion, “You cannot under any circumstances be removed from the exclusion list,” Foxwoods’ application form says.

Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, said a person for applying self-exclusion from Mohegan Sun must meet with casino officials “and have a discussion.” Applications for shorter exclusions can be completed online.

A person who self-excludes from Mohegan Sun isn’t automatically excluded from the casino’s digital platforms, either its casino gaming app or its sports betting app, Hamilton said. That requires a separate process.

“We’re talking about changing it,” he said. “I do think at some point we’ll have unity.”

‘A huge trigger’

During the Jan. 24 forum, Goode told lawmakers that many people who had signed self-exclusion forms prior to October’s launch of online casino gaming and sports betting assumption they automatically were excluded from the new forms of gambling. Some learned that wasn’t the case, she said, when they started receiving marketing materials touting the new wagering.

“What you can do is set up an account with individual vendors (FanDuel in the case of Foxwoods, DraftKings in the case of Mohegan Sun and PlaySugarHouse in the case of the lottery) and exclude through their sports betting app,” Goode said. “But just setting up the app can be a huge trigger for a problem gambler.”

Another misconception among some members of the public, Goode said, is that it’s possible to self-exclude from a specific form of gambling, such as sports betting, which is not the case. She also said the casinos have not shared with the council how many people are on their self-exclusion lists, although she understands it’s in the thousands.

Last December, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission announced that since 2015, when it launched its self-exclusion program in connection with the opening of the Bay State’s first casino, more than 1,300 people had signed up. The program offers exclusion for one, three and five years, as well as lifetime.

The commission reported that 53% of the enrollees had opted for a five-year term while 3% chose the lifetime option.

In Connecticut, 446 people have signed up for the self-exclusion program the state Department of Consumer Protection maintains, according to Kaitlyn Krasselt, a DCP spokeswoman. Those on the list are excluded from all forms of internet gambling in the state.

Asked how it’s enforced, Krasselt wrote in an email: “The self-exclusion list is shared with the operators, who ensure those on the list are unable to create an account and that any existing account is disabled. If a person is found to be gambling while on the self-exclusion list they would forfeit their winnings.”

Gambling study overdue

In addition to seeking more resources for the nonprofit council, Goode is advocating for the legislature to fund a so-called prevalence study that would update gaming’s impact on Connecticut residents, and the establishment of a commission to oversee gaming in the state, a function now entrusted to the DCP.

Originally, the council wanted a study done before the new forms of gambling took effect and another one after online casino gaming and sports betting had been in place for some time so that their impact could be measured. Now, Goode said, the council will settle for the “after” study.

In Massachusetts, which has yet to legalize sports betting, the legislature mandated a study of residents’ gambling behaviors soon after casinos were approved more than a decade ago. Over a six-year period that ended in 2019, a research team surveyed the same 3,000 people five times. The study’s findings, released in a 178-page report last year, recommended gambling prevention and treatment programs and provided policy guidelines.

“We’re definitely going to put in a bill concerning a study that’s overdue,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the Connecticut legislature’s public safety committee. Both of the casino-owning tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, have vowed to cooperate with such a study.

Goode also called for the tribes to provide more financial support for the council. She said an extra $300,000 — $150,000 from each tribe — would help the council market its helpline. The gaming-expansion bill passed last spring requires each tribe to contribute $500,000 to problem-gambling programs but doesn’t specify where the funds should be directed.

Goode said oversight of gaming in the state is now “too big and too important to throw at DCP.”

“I don’t think that will happen this year,” Osten said of any proposal to establish a gaming commission. “I’m not sure DCP is on board with it. They’ve done a decent job. We’ve hired staff for them. I’m not interested in spending money just to spend money.”

She noted that some provisions of the gaming-expansion bill have yet to be fully implemented. The lottery has yet to open all 15 retail sports betting locations that were authorized, or introduced online sales of its draw-game tickets.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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