Converting crisis calls to treatment: Tips from the Iowa Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention

May 6, 2014

Maureen Fitzgerald
Editor, ATTC Network Coordinating Office and NIATx

Webinar 3 in the  ATTC Network’s Problem Gambling Webinar series on Thursday, May 8, 2014,  features Dr. Nancy Petry, who will be discussing changes to the DSM5 and how they'll affect treatment for problem gambling.
The webinar series a great lead-in to the 11th Annual Midwest Conference on Problem Gambling and Substance Abuse: Prevention, Treatment & Recovery in an Era of Change (June 25-27, 2014, Kansas City).
The Mid-America Addiction Technology Transfer Center sponsors this event in partnership with addiction treatment and problem gambling treatment programs from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The conference features national experts on problem gambling—the 2014 agenda includes Dr. H. Westley Clark and Dr. David-Mee Lee, among others—along with updates from the states on their problem gambling initiatives.

The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention (IGTPP) has presented regularly at the conference. Their presentation at the 2013 conference shared the results of their project to convert crisis calls to treatment through a series of NIATx change projects.

A few facts about Iowa: In 1986, Iowa was the first state in the country to establish a state-funded gambling treatment program. A portion of gambling profits from casinos and the state lottery were allocated for problem gambling treatment. In 1987, Iowa became the first state to offer 1-800-BETS OFF, a free state-wide problem gambling helpline. That helpline receives 4,000 calls per year. Today, Iowa is home to 18 casinos licensed by the state’s Racing and Gaming Commission, three tribal casinos, 2,400 lottery outlets, 3,350 social and charitable gaming licenses, along with many Internet and other illegal gaming. Gambling is easily available in any one of the state’s 99 counties.  IDPH contracts with 11 local treatment agencies to provide problem gambling prevention, treatment and recovery support services in 11 service regions across the state.

NIATx has been widely used in Iowa's substance use treatment organizations; from 2005 to 2007, the state was party of a CSAT-funded state/payer pilot project to test NIATx strategies to improve access to and retention in substance abuse treatment. Iowa providers across the state continued to participate in NIATx projects in subsequent years. A project launched in 2009 applied NIATx change strategies to the state’s problem gambling program. Bob Kerksieck, Health Facilities Surveyor IGTPP shared results of that project at the 2013 Midwest Conference on Problem Gambling.

100 walk-through phone calls: To get an idea of how Iowa’s funded gambling treatment programs were responding to Bets Off Helpline referrals, Kerksieck, along with the project coach Janet Zwick and Mark Vander Linden (then program manager for IGTPP), made more than 100 phone calls over a one-year period to the helpline, posing as problem gamblers.
This exercise provided a wealth of information.  “Many calls went well, but on the first round, one-third of the calls didn’t get through to anyone at the program. Some might have gone better. Some messages were never returned,” says Kerksieck.  And for the majority of the cases, there was no counselor available within two days of the call.

Eric Preuss, current program manager at IGTPP, recommends that any agency interested in starting a NIATx change project start with the phone-walk through. “The first phone call is especially critical for problem gamblers. Most problem gamblers present as crisis callers, so engaging them on the phone when they’re seeking treatment is critical.”

Based on the data gathered from the 100 phone walk-throughs and other activities, the change team tested implementing a “warm handoff” from the 1-800-BETS-Off helpline directly to treatment programs, for all calls made from 8am to 8pm, Monday-Friday.

In a warm phone hand-off, a caller gets connected directly to a counselor at a treatment program. Instead of giving caller’s the phone number to call a local treatment program, or transferring the caller and hanging up, the helpline would transfer the caller and stay on the line, telling the program, “Hello, I have Jane on the phone. She called about a gambling problem and would like to talk to someone. Do you have a counselor available who can talk to him/her?” 

“Before this change, 57% of callers asking for help were actually connecting with a live person at a treatment agency,” says Kerksieck. “After this change, that number increased to 83%.”

Adds Preuss, “We’re encouraging our programs to have a counselor available to handle problem gambler crisis calls 24/7. We recommend no waiting and no call-backs, and contracts now have a minimum requirement that a qualified counselor responds to a helpline call within 90 minutes of the initial call, 24 hours per day and 7 days per week.”  

Preuss and his team continually evaluate the phone answering processes. A recent NIATx change project took a look at calls that appeared to be originating from outside the state of Iowa. These calls were automatically forwarded to the national problem gambling helpline.

“We learned that many of those callers were actually Iowa residents using mobile phone numbers with non-Iowa area codes,” says Preuss. “We decided to unblock the out-of-state callers and then saw a 25% increase in callers.”  As part of a this change project, Helpline staff now ask callers to identify what state they’re calling from, and if from Iowa, what county. “We can then refer people who are calling from out of state to an appropriate resource in their area.
Kerksieck’s 2013 conference presentation also shared results of a NIATx change project to reduce intake paperwork. “In the first year of our NIATx problem gambling project, we also took a look at the problem gambling screening tool our providers were using. The most common screen at the time was a 20-question screen, which was just too long to get substance abuse treatment programs to adopt,” says Kerksieck.  After testing other screening tools, the department selected the BBGS screen, a three-question test that has been endorsed by researchers and the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG). This resulted in a significant increase in problem gambling referrals from substance abuse treatment programs that adopted the BBGS.

(Read how Substance Abuse Services Center (SASC) in Dubuque, Iowa decreased assessment paperwork and increased client admissions to gambling treatment by 164%.)

A shorter screen was one of the changes that helped streamline the intake process, says Preuss. “The net effect of the project reduced paperwork at treatment programs from up to four hours for an intake to less than one hour.”  However, it appears that some programs are increasing the amount of paperwork for an admission. “This would be a prime area for a NIATx booster with programs,” he comments.

The Iowa programs are also encouraged to keep time slots open the next day for problem gamblers who call the night before. Some programs still have problematic waiting lists for both substance abusers and problem gamblers.  “Our NIATx data informed us that this is more problematic for problem gamblers because their referral is usually crisis-oriented and not forced by corrections, employer, etc.” says Preuss. “If the crisis has passed, the client is more likely to no-show.” 

One of the most successful changes tested was offering the first four sessions free of charge.

 “Our contracts mandate programs offer a sliding fee schedule, but allow the programs to decide how to set their sliding fee schedule,” says Kerksieck. “By the time you’ve got the nerve to call a helpline, you’re usually in severe financial straits and may balk at having to pay for those first sessions. We figured that these people had already paid a huge down payment on their treatment, since their gambling losses were in part funding our treatment programs.”

Kerksieck added, “All the programs that used this NIATx change cycle got a significant bump up in both admissions and continuation by offering the first four sessions free. One program reported a 300% increase in admissions and one of the larger programs found that continuation (attending at least 4 sessions in the first 30 days of treatment) increased from 57% to 100%. ”

Preuss and Kerksieck are optimistic that the DSM-5’s new definition of problem gambling as an addictive disorder will increase awareness of problem gambling as a co-morbid condition. They’ve also noted changes in Medicaid, either due to the new definition or the ACA, leading to an increase in reimbursements for problem gambling treatment outside of current state funding. 

To find out more about how the DSM-5 changes for gambling will affect treatment, attend Webinar 3 in the ATTC Network’s Problem Gambling webinar series, this Thursday, May 8. Dr. Nancy Petry was a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Substance Use Disorders Workgroup for the DSM-5, and she led the subcommittee on behavioral addictions. In this webinar, she will outline the changes to gambling diagnosis and describe their impact for other behavioral addictions. She will also outline how the changes for gambling diagnosis are likely to impact the assessment and treatment of gambling problems in years to come. 

Preuss says that the potential increase in clients seeking treatment for problem gambling underscores the need for the department and contracted providers to continually examine their processes. “We ask for regular feedback from providers on how their systems are working,” he comments. “The NIATx tools are used by providers to continually monitor and improve access to problem gambling treatment services ”

 NIATx has been a “win-win” for providers and those seeking problem gambling treatment services, concludes Preuss. “Integrating the NIATx philosophy and tools into IGTPP has improved client access to care, and has given us a foundation for continual process evaluation and improvement. Every program wants to increase client admissions and continuation.”

For more information on the Iowa’s Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention (IGTPP), contact:

Eric M. Preuss, MA, IAADC, CCS
Program Manager
Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention
Iowa Department of Public Health
Division of Behavioral Health

Bob Kerksieck, LMSW, IAADC
Health Facilities Surveyor
Office of Problem Gambling Prevention and Treatment
Iowa Department of Public Health
Division of Behavioral Health

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