After Cutbacks, Nebraska Gamblers Assistance Program May Need Casino Gambling To Expand

Feb. 21, 2022, 7:02 p.m. ·

Zoomed in photo of slot machine.
(Image by Pat Aylward, Nebraska Public Media)

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Lincoln resident Michael Sciandra seemed like he had his life together.

“While I had my daughter, I would try to portray myself as being the perfect dad perfect employee,” he said.

Deep down, however, Sciandra had known for decades he had a problem.

Mike Sciandra,  a man in a button-up sweater and jeans, reclines in his leather armchair in his office at Choices Treatment Center Inc.
Mike Sciandra sits in his office at Choices Treatment Center Inc. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

“I played a little bit of everything,” he said. “Anything from skill touch machines to go into the casinos, to sports, gambling, Keno, you name it. If I could find action, I would do it.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling would define someone like Sciandra as a problem gambler. The council defines a problem gambler as someone “with gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal family or vocational pursuits.” Sciandra said he would visit check-cashing operations, max out credit cards and borrow money from friends and family.

“I filed bankruptcy twice. (The) last time I filed bankruptcy I'm pretty sure I was $40,000 to $50,000 in debt,” he said.

The Nebraska Gamblers Assistance Program is the state agency that connects problem gamblers in Nebraska like Sciandra to gambling addiction resources - free of charge. Through a partnership with Bellevue University, it also helps provide gambling addiction training to counselors by subsidizing training tuition costs.

Financially, the agency has seen better days.

According to annual reports, the only time the agency saw an increase in revenue during the past five years was last year when the pandemic slashed available counseling hours by 10% and, in a cost-cutting move, funds for local outreach programs were eliminated.

David Geier is the director of the program and says since its inception in 1992, the program has suffered from budget issues.

A man with a plaid shirt sitting in an office chair behind a wooden desk with a bookcase and wall behind him.
David Geier, Nebraska Gambling Assistance Program director. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

“Until just the last couple of years, it's been on what I would call a starvation diet,” he said.

He says, as a result, the agency has had difficulty finding and keeping counselors specializing in gambling addiction therapy. Pay has been a major factor.

“We have to give excuses for why it's still better (to contract with the gambling assistance program),” Geiersaid. “Even though you can make 50% more, 75% more on the psychotherapy you do for a Blue Cross insured client than what we can pay.”

While there is no conclusive evidence that casinos cause problem gambling, Geier thinks it is not an impossible leap to assume there will be an increased need for his agency services once casinos get up and running in the state.

“In fact, the slot machines in Council Bluffs are one of the major contributors to the population that we serve,” Geier said. “It is a pretty simple step to think that people are going to be attracted to that form of play and a certain number of them are going to get into trouble.”

Geier also fears that lack of funding for outreach programs has resulted in many Nebraskans who would use the program not knowing it exists.

“We haven't been able to get the word out. We still find communities we go to and they say, ‘Well, I think I've heard a little bit about this but I'm not really sure,’” he said.

Even the program’s physical presence is shrinking. In 2017, the gamblers assistance program had 22 contracts with agencies in 13 communities around the state. As of last year, they had just 15 contracts in 9 communities.

Ironically, a solution to the agency's budget woes may come from the proposed casinos. As part of an initiative passed in 2020, 2.5% of a 20% tax on casino revenue is earmarked for the program. Geier says the haul would be a huge boon for the agency.

“There could be a day when our annual budget runs around $3 million, $3 and-a-half million,” he said. “We don't know that for sure yet, but it'll be plenty of money for us to be able to pay therapists a good competitive rate for what they do.”

And advocates say it is important to have quality counselors. Janet Johnson is a gambling addiction counselor in Lincoln contracted with the gambler’s assistance program and says gambling addiction can be tricky to spot.

“There are some very specific, just nuances for gambling disorder that you have to be aware of,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes it can go diagnosed as being anxiety, depression, even so far as bipolar.”

Jeremy Eberle in a short-sleeved blue shirt stands next to Janet Johnson who is wearing a light pink shirt with black floral patterns stand together in front of a wall inside Alternative Avenues, which they co-own together.
Jeremy Eberle and Janet Johnson, co-owners of Alternative Avenues and Associates in Lincoln. ( Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Jeremy Eberle is also a contracted counselor and says at times, it can be difficult even for close family to notice there's a problem, making the proper training essential.

“Because when you have like say an alcoholic,” Eberle said, “that family member likely knows they're married to an alcoholic. But we've had family members of gamblers think, ‘Well, I just thought they're having an affair or something because they were gone a lot but I didn't know like we owe a second mortgage.’”

Eberle also notes things haven't been helped by academia not taking gambling addiction as seriously as other addictions.

Ho Chunk-Inc., the development arm of the Winnebago tribe, is planning to build three casinos throughout the state in Lincoln, Omaha, and South Sioux City. CEO Lance Morgan concedes casinos can increase problem gambling and agrees with the tax, noting his organization helped to write the legislation.

Man in a dark suit, white shirt and dark blue tie in front of a bright blue background.
Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO Lance Morgan speaks on the Nebraska Public Media News' program "Speaking of Nebraska" on Thursday, February 4, 2021. (Image by Nebraska Public Media)

“We've already put our money where our mouth is, I suppose,” Morgan said.

Despite casinos directly benefiting from problem gambling, Morgan says he believes gambling is meant to be a form of entertainment, not a crippling addiction.

The impact of addiction counseling on the lives of those who seek treatment can be transformational.

It was for Mike Sciandra.

When he decided to get help for his gambling addiction in 2020, he called a representative with the Lincoln-based Choices Treatment Center Inc., whose gambling addiction counselors are certified through the Gambler’s Assistance Program.

“She told me then to go home, rest, don't leave the house, don't do anything rash, and meet her here at Choices the next day.”

The rest, he says, is history. While he wouldn’t call himself recovered, Sciandra says he is in a much better place.

“I was so tired of who I was for many, many years and now I'm happy with who I am.”

Sciandra now works for Choices Treatment Center as a marketer and is currently working on getting his certification for counseling addictive gamblers to help people like himself. His tuition is being partly subsidized by the Nebraska Gamblers Assistance Program.