A bipartisan group of lawmakers is again pushing military officials to screen for gambling problems among active-duty troops, estimating that tens of thousands may be struggling with addiction and posing a potential national security risk.
On Tuesday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., reintroduced legislation mandating the Defense Department to develop new plans to monitor gambling problems in annual health and behavioral surveys, and put in place plans for new treatments to help individuals struggling with gambling addictions.
Companion legislation will be introduced by Rep. Suie Lee, D-Nev., in the House. It also requires an expansion of federal assistance programs for veterans struggling with gambling issues.
The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that as many as 56,000 active duty troops meet the criteria for gambling disorder. Warren said the move is designed “to honor the sacrifices servicemembers and veterans make for our country” by helping individuals “get the treatment they need.”
Troops and veterans with significant gambling debts could face difficulties gaining or maintaining security clearances, due to fears that their financial situation leaves them more susceptible to blackmail.
Studies have found gambling addition is connected to a higher risk of suicide attempts, behavioral disorders, and other health concerns.
Complicating the issue are nearly 3,000 slot machines still in operation at overseas military bases, which bring in millions in revenue each year for military morale and recreation programs.
Defense Department officials have said only a small number of troops meet the criteria for gambling addiction, but outside groups have said those studies overlook a number of troops who are resistant to getting help for their problems.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, praised the new move as good for the troops and the military as a whole.
“There exists an ethical and economic obligation to protect our troops by preventing gambling addiction,” he said in a statement. “Problem gambling is a critical issue that is far too often overlooked.”
Congress in recent years has approved new studies on the issue of gambling in the ranks, but plans for mandatory screening and new treatment programs have failed to advance into law. Warren, among the top contenders in the Democratic presidential primary race, is optimistic the measure can move ahead this session.
If approved, Defense Department officials would have six months to update regulations and guidance to explicitly include gambling disorders, and to develop the new assistance programs.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.