Drug testing public assistance recipients under discussion at WV legislative interims

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Drug testing public assistance recipients under discussion at WV legislative interims
By Lexi Browning, Daily Mail Staff

The half decade-long debate on drug testing public assistance recipients has resurfaced. The West Virginia Joint Committee on Health and Human Resources Accountability discussed the issue during a meeting Monday at the state Capitol.

Rochelle Finzel, director of the National Conference of State Legislators, said most states were nudging welfare programs into becoming opportunities for employment.

“In addition to the two federal provisions and asking the states to think about what they wanted to do in terms of the issue, it’s also really tied into moving the program from the entitling cash assistance program to a welfare-to-work program, so it was driven by the provisions and getting people to work,” Finzel said.

Programs across the nation vary in several ways: whether recipients who test positive are eligible for publicly funded rehabilitation whether the state or the individual pays for the test and which individuals, if they are parents, are considered ineligible for child support if substance abuse is confirmed. States that have launched pilot programs to drug test welfare recipients have met with mixed results.

For example, Michigan’s three-county program tested anyone who applied for benefits in addition to 20 percent of random existing recipients who were deemed “suspicious.” The program was challenged by district courts and struck down as a violation to the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure.

In several states, the number of positive drug tests is minuscule compared the amount spent on the testing, Finzel said. During Oklahoma’s 14-month period of drug testing, 168 recipients tested positive. In Mississippi, eight out of 6,000 applicants tested positive from August to April. And in Utah, 9 to 12 tested positive. The state tested 400 of its 4,400 applicants total.

“There is limited data in a relatively short time frame, upon which to evaluate the costs; there’s not a lot of information,” Finzel said. “Some are only giving hard costs of the tests and that varies between the states.”

Because of each state’s differing emphasis, it’s hard to judge cost versus savings.

“Utah, for example had 12 positive tests that cost them $31,000, and that was just for the actual written tests and the drug test. That doesn’t factor in the cost of staff time or other administrative costs,” Finzel said. Missouri, which factored the price of treatment and rehabilitation into the budget, calculated more than half a million in the program’s cost.

 “Missouri, when they passed their law, estimated a total cost of between $560,000 and $900,000 so there’s quite a variation in how states are trying to quantify the cost of the program,” Finzel said.

Finzel estimated such a program would cost $2 million in West Virginia. Finzel also addressed concerns of capacity in treatment programs and rehabilitation facilities, particularly in rural areas.

During the 2015 West Virginia session, several bills were introduced concerning drug testing public assistance recipients, including Senate Bill 99 and Senate Bill 348, both of which died in Health and Human Resources Committee. House Bill 2021, sponsored by Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, was tabled in March