Politics & Government

Push to create treatment program for problem gamblers faces long odds in Ky.

Mike Stone, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, wants state lawmakers to approve a bill to fund a gambling awareness and treatment program.
Mike Stone, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, wants state lawmakers to approve a bill to fund a gambling awareness and treatment program. Jack Brammer | Staff

FRANKFORT — Hawesville Mayor Rita Stephens said her husband, Billy Stephens, lived "a life of lies" with his gambling addiction.

"He would bet whenever he could — on horse races, ball games, go to gambling boats in the middle of night — getting more and more in debt all the time," Rita Stephens said. "All he thought about was gambling, and he never told me or anyone else the truth about it."

When he "finally broke down and admitted he had a problem," Billy Stephens, 66, said he could find no affordable treatment in Kentucky. The family had to borrow money to pay for his $6,000 treatment in a 36-day program in Louisiana, which is free to residents of the Bayou State.

Kentucky is one of 13 states without a state program to treat problem gamblers.

"It's totally unacceptable we in Kentucky, a state that is known for its gambling, have to send people out of the state to get help for this addiction," said Rita Stephens.

The couple supports a bill being pushed by the Kentucky Council on Public Gambling during this year's General Assembly to create a state fund for problem gambling awareness and treatment.

Despite the need for more treatment, House Bill 58 is a long shot to pass, said its sponsor, Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon.

Mills has filed a similar bill for the past three years, "and our tight money situation has kept it from becoming law."

His previous bills asked for money from the state lottery, racing commission and charitable gambling to fund the treatment program. This year's bill simply calls for an appropriation from the state General Fund, which pays for most state programs. It does not designate the source of the money.

The bill seeks $600,000 in the first year and $1.2 million the second year.

Mike Stone, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, suggests that the money to treat gamblers come from proceeds from instant racing, which is in place at Kentucky Downs in Franklin and Ellis Park in Henderson. The game allows players to bet on previously run races using devices that operate much like slot machines.

Through September, almost $169 million had been wagered using instant racing machines in Kentucky. The tracks had received more than $11.4 million and had paid more than $2.5 million in pari-mutuel taxes. About $1.9 million had been contributed to various horse racing purses around the state.

The Kentucky Supreme Court announced last month that it would review the legality of instant racing, which The Family Foundation opposes.

Mills said the bill's best chances of passage will occur whenever the state expands gambling. Mills said he was a proponent of expanded gambling but feels "a moral obligation to recognize the dark side of gambling."

Stone, whose group is neutral on the issue of expanded gambling, said the state treasury receives more than $200 million a year from the approximately $2 billion that is wagered legally in the state.

"By sanctioning gambling, Kentucky provides the opportunity for some citizens to develop a gambling addiction," Stone said. "Kentucky also must serve the gambler in the state with an addiction."

A University of Kentucky survey showed Kentucky's 9,000 addicted gamblers cost the state $81 million a year in social costs that include criminal justice expense, bankruptcy, domestic abuse, homelessness, public assistance, lost income and lower productivity, Stone said.

If Mills' bill becomes law, Stone said, the money would be spent on making citizens aware of problem gambling and treating those who are addicted to gambling.

His council's annual budget is $75,000. The money for the nonprofit comes from donations and memberships, the largest of which is from the gaming industry. Membership fees start at $25.

With professional treatment, Billy Stephens said, he has not gambled since 2010.

"My addiction almost destroyed me," he said. "My insurance in Kentucky would have helped with my treatment if it were alcohol. But it was gambling."

One change his treatment brought about is the disappearance of lottery tickets in the IGA grocery store he helps run in Hawesville, an Ohio River community in Hancock County.

"I get up every morning now and thank God for another day of being clean," he said. "I'm a changed man."