LINCOLN — Nebraska's efforts to help problem gamblers marked a new beginning Monday.
A new state law moved problem gambling services out of the State Department of Health and Human Services and set them up as a separate state agency.
State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha sponsored the bill to create the new Nebraska Commission on Problem Gambling.
During the session, he argued that moving services out of the massive HHS department and putting them under an independent agency would make treatment available to more people.
He also said he hoped that the new agency would draw more public attention to the needs of gamblers who have lost control.
“I think we're going to get more bang for our buck, and I think we're going to have better services,” Krist told the General Affairs Committee.
The proposal stemmed from concerns raised by problem gamblers and treatment professionals about the direction of the program under HHS.
They said problem gambling services had been lumped in with mental health and substance abuse programs, which is not recommended by gambling treatment professionals.
The decision by HHS officials to contract with a Chicago-based company for counseling and help line services illustrated the concerns, according to Jerry Bauerkemper, executive director of the Nebraska Council on Compulsive Gambling.
The help line number the company used was different from one used nationwide, including at casinos and by major league sports, he said. That meant it was harder for Nebraskans to find the right number to call for help.
Bauerkemper said 432 people and families sought help in 2006, while 173 sought help in 2012.
He said the company also started doing limited telephone counseling instead of referring people for more extended treatment with local counselors.
Former State Sen. Vickie McDonald said creating an independent commission would keep faith with Nebraska voters, who have approved constitutional amendments setting aside a portion of lottery funds to treat problem gamblers.
But it will take some time before the new commission is ready to set a new course.
Gov. Dave Heineman named the new commission members last week, but they have yet to meet. The commission will have to hire an executive director and oversee the process of drawing up new contracts with various service providers.
The commission will get administrative support from the State Department of Revenue.
Creation of the problem gambling commission was the biggest change out of handful of new laws that took effect Monday.
Most laws passed by the Nebraska Legislature this year won't take effect until Sept. 6, which is the 90th day after the session ended.