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Winning a Jackpot, Facing the Ultimate Loss


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http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/nyreg ... ttery.html


Published: February 11, 2007

NAPLES, N.Y., Feb. 5 — Wayne A. Schenk figured that someday he might get lung cancer.

His parents both died of the disease, and Mr. Schenk, 51, increased the odds with a pack-a-day smoking habit.

Sure enough, after visiting a doctor in mid-December for a sore neck, he learned that a tumor was pressing on his nerves. “I was kind of devastated,” he said.

With treatment, Mr. Schenk might live 12 to 16 months, the doctors told him. Four weeks later, just as he had ended radiation and was about to begin chemotherapy, he and a close friend, Domonick R. Gallo, spent an afternoon playing the lottery with scratch-off tickets.

“We were driving and I’d scratch one off and holler, ‘I’m a loser,’ ” he said, smiling at the memory as he and Mr. Gallo took turns describing what happened.

Then Mr. Gallo said his friend looked at the next ticket and said: “Oh, look at that. I’m a winner. What’s the jackpot?”

It was $1 million.

The odds of someone Mr. Schenk’s age developing lung cancer are roughly one in 5,000; the odds of winning the jackpot in the $5 game of High Stakes Blackjack, as he did, are one in 2,646,000.

Now Mr. Schenk, a Marine Corps veteran, hopes to spend his lottery winnings, which come to $34,000 a year after taxes over 20 years, on medical care. But is not that easy — getting a lump sum payment of his winnings is not an option with this type of game.

After researching his alternatives, he called the Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia, which is part of a nationwide chain, Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

A spokeswoman for the medical center, Leigh Fazzina, said Mr. Schenk’s insurance with the Department of Veterans Affairs would not transfer to the medical center, so he would need $125,000 up front plus $250,000 in reserves that the hospital could access directly and withdraw in $50,000 increments as treatment progresses. “The cost of cancer care is very, very expensive,” she said.

But if the New York State Lottery can assign the ticket to the hospital, Ms. Fazzina said, “that’s certainly something we would take a look at.”

To that, his friend, Mr. Gallo, said, “We need to help Wayne now.”

Before he got sick, Mr. Schenk, who is unmarried and childless, got by with a series of odd jobs, like working as a roofer and for a local ski resort.

A year ago he bought a tavern, the Orange Inn, but it has been losing money since he became ill and has been unable to work.

On the night he won the lottery, he said, he went to the tavern to buy patrons a round of drinks before he had even announced his winnings, but his bartender said, “I’m not going to buy a round when you can’t pay your electrical bill.”

Although Mr. Schenk did not reveal his good fortune that night, the bartender relented nonetheless.

His only health care comes from Veterans Affairs, from his stint in the Marines from 1976 to 1980, including a tour in Lebanon.

For now, he drives about 90 miles from his home to the Syracuse V.A. Medical Center, but believes he can improve his chances of survival if he seeks treatment from a specialized cancer center.

First Mr. Schenk and Mr. Gallo tried lobbying the New York Lottery for a lump sum payment, to no avail. “We have to abide by the rules and regulations,” said Susan Miller, deputy director of the state lottery, adding that Mr. Schenk’s illness “makes us wish we could in fact do something.”

Next, they consulted State Assemblyman Joseph A. Errigo, whose district includes the small Finger Lakes town where Mr. Schenk lives.

Mr. Errigo said he was considering proposing legislation that would allow the lottery to make a one-time exemption and award a lump sum payment. “If we had a year or longer, that might work,” he said. “But the way wheels work in Albany, if it did happen, it may be too late.”

Even if the measure did come up for a vote, Mr. Errigo said the chances of it being approved were about one in five.

He is working with the lottery to see if the ticket can be assigned directly to a hospital — something that officials say has never been done before.

Mr. Schenk thought about selling the ticket to a third-party investor, but realized he would receive only a fraction of the payout, perhaps $200,000. He also put his name on a list at a medical center in Canada to see if it would accept him for an experimental drug trial.

Mr. Schenk has received the first of his 20 payments, which after taxes, amounted to about $34,000. He paid off some bills and put aside the rest. “I’m taking it day by day and hoping for the best,” he said.

When asked what he thought his chances were of getting the lottery money up front, he sounded a bit like one of its slogans. “You never know,” he said.

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