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One Year After MGM Opening, Efforts To Address Problem Gambling Underway

The 2011 casino law in Massachusetts required the state to help address problem gambling. About a year after MGM Springfield opened, health leaders say programs are rolling out.

Jessica Collins said it took a while for the state to spend money on problem gambling, but she's happy with the result.

Her group, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, received $100,000 in May to develop a community program that will address one social issue related to the casino, though they haven't picked it yet.

“Some of the priorities that the community have brought up are things like gentrification or safety around human trafficking, employment, traffic, domestic violence,” Collins said.

Meanwhile, the state has been launching other initiatives more directly related to problem gambling. For instance, buses drive around with ads on the side that say, in Spanish or English: "Drugs, Alcohol, Gambling. Different Stories, Same Problem." There are similar messages on social media.

The state's budget to address problem gambling is almost $6 million — most of which comes from a public health fund set up from casino revenue. And most of that spending has come in the last six months, including a grant to Springfield to hire community health workers.

City health commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said they haven't yet hired the workers.

“The scope of work is something that we are fleshing out to make sure that we're reaching those neighborhoods, and underserved and vulnerable populations, and marginalized individuals, who could be susceptible to problem gambling,” she said.

Caulton-Harris said the health department will not provide gambling treatment, but instead become a hub for information on where to get it. To do that, Springfield has newly created an office for gambling outreach — about 9 months later than originally planned.

Chrismery Gonzalez was hired in May to run the office.

A poster at the Gandara Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

“We sent out some letters introducing my role in this office to local agencies and organizations,” Gonzalez said. “We are in the process of scheduling meetings to sit down and having those face to face interactions and conversations.”

One of those organizations is the Gandara mental health center, which recently got state funding to launch a peer-support recovery program in Holyoke and another one this fall in Springfield.  

Gandara's behavioral health director, Madeline Alviles-Hernandez, said they've been offering gambling treatment since long before MGM opened — for problems around scratch tickets, the lottery or the Connecticut casinos.

“Have we been able to track, or have any data, saying that it’s gone up or down? I wouldn't necessarily be able to say that it's been one or the other,” Alviles-Hernandez said.

Since MGM opened, about 200 people have put themselves on a "voluntary self-exclusion" list that says they're not allowed to gamble, according to the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. 

The council also works with the state gaming commission to oversee a program called GameSense, in which workers inside the casino interact with customers about anything from how to play the games to where to get help for gambling addiction.

Of the approximately 90,000 interactions GameSense has reported over the past year, only about a tenth were related to problem gambling.

The GameSense office on the floor of the MGM casino. Staff members are supposed to teach customers how to play the games, how the odds favor the house and how to get help if they're developing problems.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
The GameSense office on the floor of the MGM casino. Staff members are supposed to teach customers how to play the games, how the odds favor the house and how to get help if they're developing problems.

Now that Encore Boston Harbor has opened, the public health trust fund will grow with the new casino revenue. But that also means more community organizations will vie for funding to address problem gambling.

Whether that money is fairly distributed is a concern for Collins, of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

"That’s what I push as an advocate, and write letters [about] to the Public Health Trust Fund Executive Committee," Collins said. "'What is your algorithm? How are you going to make sure that the money is coming back to Hampden County?'"

That's something public health professionals will keep watching, well beyond the casino's first anniversary.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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