The Day – The magnitude of the increase in calls to the problem gambling ‘hotline’ surprised many

Virtually everyone expected that the advent of online casino gaming and sports betting in Connecticut would result in a surge in calls to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling’s “Helpline,” which counsels callers and often directs them to state treatment programs.

Well, few would describe what has been unfolding as an “up move,” implying a slow, gradual rise.

“I didn’t think it would increase so quickly,” Diana Goode, the council’s executive director, said in a phone interview. “Usually it takes a problem player a while to bottom out and get their hand up. I thought we had six months to a year to sort things out, but people lose everything in a weekend. The speed at which people are losing all their money has shocked me.”

Goode made headlines last month when she publicly described the increase in helpline calls since October, the month in which Southeast Connecticut’s casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. launched new forms of gambling that lawmakers had approved just months earlier.

At a Jan. 24 information forum, Goode told the legislature’s Public Safety Committee that helpline calls had quadrupled. In November, they rose by 87% compared to the same month last year. Annual gains have increased every month since then.

According to the council, calls rose 122% from October to January compared to the same period a year ago.

In her testimony, Goode was careful not to gloss over the seriousness of the dire situations callers reported. She told the panel that on a few Monday mornings, she and the other two council employees who handle the helpline traffic — “calls” come via text and web chat, as well as by calling (888) 789-7777 — heard from people who ” lost all” bets on sports the previous weekend.

That means the hotline could be busy next 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 lawmakers to come back to me in a year and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us it was that bad?'”

Based on the helpline calls she’s received, Goode said she’s worried “that something really bad is going to happen,” which means a problem gambler’s suicide.

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

Self-exclusion not perfect

One caller, a father in his 60s, was calling about his 40-year-old son who had maxed out his credit card while gambling online and then opened another account in his wife’s name and maxed out her credit card as well. The father wanted to know what protection options are available in such situations. The hotline offered advice and a referral to a Betting Choice treatment program, of which there are 16 statewide. In eastern Connecticut, problem gaming services are available through United Community & Family Services in Norwich.

In another case, a male college student drained his parents’ bank account during a weekend gambling frenzy and, when his parents discovered it, told them it was a bank error. The student then called the hotline.

A problem gambler who hadn’t gambled in over a year and thought he himself had been banned from all gambling received a gambling promotion via email, signed up for an online account and became addicted again.

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

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

By signing any of the casino self-exclusion forms, an individual will ban themselves from that particular casino.

“Exclusion means that you must not be employed in any capacity by MPGE (Foxwoods) and must not be present at Foxwoods Resort Casino for any reason,” Foxwoods’ self-exclusion request states.

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

A self-excluded person returning to Mohegan Sun will be arrested for trespassing, “and any jackpot winnings will be forfeited,” the form said. Foxwoods states that it will “use reasonable efforts” to refuse a self-excluded person access to the casino, but “will not accept responsibility” if a self-exclusion fails to comply with the terms of the exclusion.

Casino officials recognize that some self-exclusion candidates may refrain from registering because they do not wish to be locked out of the casino altogether. You may have to give up gambling but still want to attend a show, restaurant, or basketball game.

Mohegan Sun offers self-exclusion for periods of one year, five years or for life. A person who has self-excluded for one or five years must apply in writing to have their exclusion lifted. Foxwoods offers a five-year ban that automatically revokes at the end of the fifth year, and a permanent ban.

In the event of a permanent exclusion, “under no circumstances may you be removed from the exclusion list,” Foxwoods’ application form states.

Mohegan Sun President and General Manager Jeff Hamilton said a person requesting a lifetime self-exclusion from Mohegan Sun must meet with casino officials “and have a discussion.” Requests for shorter exclusions can be made online.

A person who self-excludes from Mohegan Sun will not automatically be banned from the casino’s digital platforms, whether the casino gaming app or the sportsbook app, Hamilton said. This requires a separate process.

“We’re talking about changing it,” he said. “I think at some point we will agree.”

“A Huge Trigger”

During the Jan. 24 forum, Goode told lawmakers that many people who signed self-exclusion forms before the launch of online casino games and sports betting in October assumed they would be automatically excluded from the new forms of gambling. Some learned that wasn’t the case, she said, when they began receiving marketing materials promoting the new bets.

“What you can do is create an account with individual providers (FanDuel in the case of Foxwoods, DraftKings in the case of Mohegan Sun, and PlaySugarHouse in the case of the lottery) and ban them through their sportsbook app,” Goode said. “But even setting up the app can be a big trigger for a problem player.”

Another misconception among some members of the public, Goode said, is that it is possible to self-exclude from a certain form of gambling, such as sports betting, when it is not. She also said casinos have not told the council how many people are on their self-exclusion lists, although she understands there are thousands.

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

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

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

Asked how it will be enforced, Krasselt wrote in an email: “The self-exclusion list is shared with operators who ensure that those on the list cannot create an account and that all existing accounts are disabled. If a person is found to be playing while on the self-exclusion list, their winnings will be forfeited.”

Gambling study overdue

In addition to finding more resources for the nonprofit council, Goode advocates that lawmakers fund a so-called prevalence study that updates the impact of gambling on Connecticut residents and the creation of a commission to oversee gambling in the state, which now has a function has entrusted to the DCP.

Initially, the council wanted a study to be carried out before the new forms of gambling came into force and another after online casino games and sports betting had been up and running for some time so that their impact could be measured. For now, Goode said, the council will settle for the “after” study.

In Massachusetts, which has yet to legalize sports betting, lawmakers mandated a study of residents’ gaming behavior shortly after allowing casinos more than a decade ago. Over a six-year period ending in 2019, a research team interviewed the same 3,000 people five times. The results of the study, published in a 178-page report last year they recommended gambling prevention and treatment programs and provided guidelines.

“We’re definitely going to introduce a bill regarding an overdue study,” said Senator Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the Connecticut Legislature’s Public Safety Committee. Both tribes of casino owners, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, have agreed to participate in such a study.

Goode also called on the tribes to provide more financial support to the council. She said an additional $300,000 — $150,000 from each tribe — would help the council market its hotline. The Gambling Expansion Act, passed last spring, requires each tribe to contribute $500,000 to problem gambling programs, but doesn’t specify where the funds should go.

Goode said the state’s gambling oversight is now “too big and too important to attack DCP.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen this year,” Osten said of any proposal to set up a gambling commission. “I’m not sure if DCP is in it. You’ve done a decent job. We have hired staff for them. I’m not interested in spending money just to spend money.”

She pointed out that some provisions of the Gambling Expansion Act have yet to be fully implemented. The lottery has yet to open all 15 authorized sportsbook sites to retail or launch the online sale of their draw game tickets.

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