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Virginia program shows rare success in addressing problem gambling

(Photo courtesy Colin Campbell | WUNC)
(Photo courtesy Colin Campbell | WUNC)

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ.

Virginia has significantly loosened gambling laws in the last five years and with it has come a rise in problem gambling. But some treatment programs are seeing success.

“What we’ve seen since 2019 to 2023, an increase of 973% of callers,” said Carolyn Hawley, Director of the Virginia Partnership for Gaming and Health, part of the state’s effort to combat problem gambling. Hawley told the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee to Study the Feasibility of Establishing the Virginia Gaming Commission about the increase in calls her group has gotten from those experiencing gambling addiction.

Gambling addiction is similar to other addictions, but its most chilling statistic is its link with suicide. One study found over 50% of problem of gamblers consider suicide.

But Hawley, who runs a state partnership with help from VCU’s Department of Rehabilitation Counseling, said the treatment system they’ve created is working.

In the first quarter of this year, they had 166 referrals to the partnership with over 50% of those people connecting with treatment. Comparable programs around the country usually see only 4 to10% ever make it to treatment. And while a provider shortage exists, like many other healthcare workforce fields, Hawley said the partnership has built a network of 105 providers across the state.

Perhaps most remarkable, 96% of the people that end up in treatment say they’ve stopped or decreased gambling after 6 months.

“What we’re doing here in Virginia is truly remarkable and we’re becoming a model for other states to follow,” Hawley told the committee.

That’s good news for those in need of treatment, but the rapid increase in those needing treatment did lead to some concern from members of the Joint Subcommittee to Study the Feasibility of Establishing the Virginia Gaming Commission, including skill game skeptic Delegate Paul Krizek.

“It’s very sobering to hear those statistics, but kudos to you and your team for what you’re doing,” Krizek said after the presentation.

Virginia is considering even more gaming expansions– A pair of skill game bills may be heard in a special Senate session Tuesday.

The world changes fast.

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