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DHHR implements drug testing requirements for TANF welfare recipients


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia residents who apply for welfare now are subject to a drug screening, state health officials announced Monday.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has implemented a requirement that people who apply for assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program pass a drug screening.

The requirement was implemented Oct. 23, according to a news release from the DHHR. The requirement was part of a three-year pilot program that the state Legislature passed in 2016, but it required approval from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the release says.

Now, when people apply for TANF, they must complete a questionnaire to determine suspicion of drug use. Those who are suspected of using illegal drugs are sent for drug testing. Those who test positive are referred to substance abuse treatment and a job skills program.

Caretaker relatives, such as grandparents, are exempt from taking the questionnaire as long as they’re not included in the benefit, the DHHR said.

The drug-use questionnaire includes 14 questions about the previous 12 months that applicants are required to respond to with “yes,” “no” or “not applicable.” Questions include “Have you ever used drugs other than those required for medical reasons?” “Do you abuse more than one drug at a time?” “Are you always able to stop using drugs when you want to?” and “Do you ever feel bad or guilty about your drug use?” The questionnaires answers are tallied, and applicants with a score of moderate to severe drug use are required to have a drug test. A “yes” response to one particular question, “Have you been convicted of a drug-related offense within the last three years?” automatically requires recipients to be drug tested.

A fiscal note provided by the Legislature estimated the drug-testing program will cost around $55,000 in federal TANF funds the first year and around $22,000 for each year after. Those estimates don’t include the increased drug-treatment costs that Medicaid would pick up.

The bill passed handily in both the Senate and the House of Delegates in 2016. Lawmakers who supported it argued that government assistance shouldn’t be used to support drug use.

But policy exports and advocates for the poor have criticized it.

A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources says that most estimates find that drug abuse among TANF recipients is between 5 and 10 percent, only a few points higher than among the general population. The report also found that none of the states that implemented a drug-testing requirement for TANF recipients estimated saving money because of the program.

Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said Monday the drug-testing requirement is a program that sounds good in theory but doesn’t work. There’s no evidence to suggest that drug abuse is more prevalent among those who receive TANF, he said.

“There’s no evidence that it helps prevent substance abuse,” he said.

The program would also require TANF recipients to pay for costly substance abuse treatment that it doesn’t pay for while taking away assistance that could have potentially been used to pay for that treatment, he said.

“It’s going to create more barriers to people getting treatment,” he said.

Reach Lori Kersey at [email protected], 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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