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RI ends gambling addiction program

David Klepper, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Rhode Island has stopped funding a 12-year-old treatment program for compulsive gamblers — less than a month after gambling in the state expanded when the Twin River Casino began offering Las Vegas-style table games.

Since 2001, Rhode Island Hospital had operated an out-patient program funded by the state for problem gamblers who are uninsured or lack the ability to pay. The state originally dedicated $150,000 a year to the initiative, but cut the amount to $50,000 last year before eliminating it altogether in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Gerald Aubin, director of the state Lottery, which oversaw funding for the program, said he was unaware the program had exhausted its funds. He said the state may soon launch a new program to help gambling addicts in light of expanded gambling at Twin River. A task force is now studying the state's options, and Aubin said a request for treatment program proposals could go out in a week.

"The Lottery will develop a problem-gaming program and we'll have a better feel for the depth of the problem," he said.

Aubin added that "we were never notified" that funding for the former program had been exhausted.

But Bob Breen, the psychologist who ran the old program, said he warned Aubin of the impending funding problem in a March email. Breen stopped accepting patients when the fiscal year began July 1 and has turned away five patients so far. He said the expanded gambling at Twin River — and at yet-to-be-built casinos in Massachusetts — is likely to result in more cases of compulsive gambling.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of insight into the fact that beyond all these blue ribbon panels, there are real people who are suffering," he said. "This has been handled really badly."

After being contacted by The Associated Press, Aubin said the Lottery would be willing to set aside money to restart Breen's treatment program — at least until the state's new initiative begins. The Lottery currently has $50,000 in unspent funds for problem-gambling programs, a portion of which could help to revive Breen's initiative.

Aubin acknowledged receiving Breen's email from March, but said he expected to hear from Breen closer to the end of the fiscal year before the funds were exhausted.

Breen said he hasn't decided whether to accept Aubin's offer of additional support. He said he's frustrated by the inconsistent funding and wants assurances that the program will be backed for more than a few months. Since 2001, the treatment program has served more than 1,600 problem gamblers.

Twin River has agreed to pay $100,000 per year going forward to support efforts to address compulsive gambling, Twin River spokeswoman Patti Doyle said. The Lincoln facility began offering games like blackjack, roulette and craps last month and "has always felt strongly that being a part of the problem-gambling solution is an important role," Doyle said.

The state makes more than $350 million from the Lottery and its share of revenues from Twin River and Newport Grand.

Rhode Island spends far less than most states on problem-gambling services. In 2010, Rhode Island spent less than 10 cents per capita on problem-gambling treatment programs, compared to a national average of 34 cents, according to the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators.