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Lawmakers debate nursing home bingo

Critics of the measures say Alzheimer's patients shouldn't be gambling with their own money.

Published April 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - A pair of bills designed to make it easier for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities to play bingo are drawing criticism because they would allow Alzheimer's patients to wager money on the games.

Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, have filed bills (HB 1143 and SB 664) to exempt residents and guests at nursing homes, adult day care centers and continuing care centers from state regulations that apply to other places where bingo is allowed.

Bingo is legal at condominium complexes, homeowner associations and charitable organizations if proceeds are donated to organizational endeavors or awarded to players.

The Berfield-Sebesta bills would require staff supervision when Alzheimer's patients use their own money, but some officials question whether patients who suffer from mental impairment should be allowed to wager their money on anything.

Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, said some patients should be barred from playing with their own money. Fiorentino is the only legislator who has opposed the bill. She said she voted against it after hearing from law enforcement officials in Pasco County.

"We need to protect our most vulnerable citizens," Fiorentino said.

Sgt. Lou Garcia, a Pasco County sheriff's detective, and the Suncoast Bingo Council have urged legislators to reject the bill unless they make the games subject to local bingo regulations and eliminate the provision that refers to Alzheimer's patients.

In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, Garcia said state law makes it a felony to allow any person who is mentally impaired to wager his own money.

"I believe it would be a crime to use this subject's personal funds to participate in a game of chance, whether or not supervised by paid or volunteer staff," Garcia said.

A spokesman for Sebesta said Alzheimer's advocates favor the bill because many victims of the disease continue to enjoy playing. Both bills have been approved after initial committee hearings, but must still make it through other committees before being heard on the floor of the House or Senate.

[Last modified April 4, 2003, 02:33:12]

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