Foss: More resources needed for problem gambling

Lack of services in Schenectady seems like serious omission

To hear problem gambling experts tell it, something akin to a hurricane is descending upon the Capital Region this week.

“We will be extending our clinic hours on Wednesday,” Bill Hill, the program director at the Albany-based Center for Problem Gambling, told me when I stopped by his office to talk about the casino opening in Schenectady. “We’re going to have after-hours crisis counseling.”

“There’s years of documentation and research showing that within 50 miles of a casino you see dramatic rises in problem gambling,” explained Philip Rainer, who serves as chief clinical officer at Capital Counseling, the non-profit agency that runs for the Center for Problem Gambling.

Rainer and Hill are certain the Capital Region will see an uptick in gambling addiction due to the new casino. They are also certain that resisting the urge to gamble there will be a challenge for their clients, who have been talking about Rivers Casino & Resort for months.

“We have members who are already experiencing a kind of arousal,” Rainer told me. “Think of it as a drug craving.”

Lew Krupka, a Guilderland therapist who specializes in problem gambling and hosts a support group for gambling addicts, says his clients are following the casino very closely.

“They’re very conscious of the casino,” Krupka told me. “They get all worked up when they drive by it. One guy purposely goes out of his way to look at it every day.”

Most people can go to a casino, have a good time and go home without developing a gambling problem. But there’s a subset of the population that can’t do that, and local problem gambling experts are already struggling to meet their needs.

Now a full-fledged casino, with slot machines and table games such as poker and blackjack, is opening, which will only exacerbate the problem.

The New York Council on Problem Gambling lists treatment programs for problem gamblers on its KnowtheOdds website; none are located in Schenectady. Last month the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services announced that six addiction treatment centers would expand services for problem gamblers, but none of the centers are particularly accessible to Capital Region residents – the closest ones are Middletown and Ogdensburg.

Given the fact that a casino is about to open in our own backyard, the lack of gambling services in Schenectady seems like a serious omission.

“Ease of access increases problems,” Jaime Costello, director of prevention, training and special programs for NYCPG, said. “More programs are definitely needed. It would help if gambling services were available in every community.”

The state does plan to allocate more money for problem gambling services in the years to come, which is a positive development.

Right now New York state budgets $2.2 million annually for problem gambling – less than Nevada, New Jersey or another state with substantial gambling revenues, according to the Associated Press – but that number will soon increase.

The state’s new casinos will contribute an estimated $3.5 million a year toward gambling addiction programs, and it would be great if some of this additional funding was used to increase treatment options for gambling addicts in Schenectady County, home of one of four new upstate casinos. Hill and Rainer both estimate that about one-third of their clients come from the Electric City.

It’s worth noting that there are people trained to treat problem gamblers that don’t work at clinics designed specifically to cater to that population.

Marilyn DeBernardo, the director of residential services at New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, is trained to treat gamblers, as are two other members of her staff. But she said she has only treated problem gamblers who are struggling with other issues, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

If problem gambling does increase in the wake of the casino’s opening, “we’ll respond to it in some way,” she said.

It would be nice to think that Hill, Rainer and other experts in problem gambling are wrong – that the casino won’t lead to an increase in problem gambling and other social ills. But I suspect that they’re right, and that within the year we’ll have a better understanding of the casino’s downsides.

One of those downsides is sure to be an increase in problem gambling, and we need more resources for the people who can’t control themselves when they step onto the gaming floor.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at