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Eye On Boise

Study: Welfare drug tests not cost-effective

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Department of Health and Welfare study concludes federal regulations forbid Idaho from requiring drug tests for recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and other big welfare programs. For two small programs where testing wouldn't be illegal — child care and temporary cash assistance for families that help 10,500 people — the agency says the cost of the tests, treatment and potential litigation would likely consume prospective savings. Republican lawmakers demanded the study last March, saying their constituents considered it unfair that some Idahoans are drug tested by their employers while those on public assistance are not. Proponents wanted to see if savings from booting offenders from public assistance would pay off. Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin have testing programs now, but Michigan's was struck down a decade ago by the courts. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Study: Welfare drug tests not cost effective
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A state study concluded the cost of mandatory drug testing of public assistance recipients would exceed any savings from booting offenders from programs.

Republican lawmakers demanded the study last March, saying their constituents considered it unfair that some Idahoans are drug-tested by their employers while those on public assistance are not.

The study by the Department of Health and Welfare found testing is forbidden for big welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

For child care assistance and temporary cash assistance for families — programs that are mostly federally funded and for which testing isn't illegal — the study indicated the costs of testing and related treatment would wipe out prospective savings achieved by removing offenders. The two programs cover about 10,500 people.

Also, legal bills that have plagued other states undertaking such testing could further sap resources.

"The costs of legal action alone during the first year could exceed the costs of the drug testing and treatment program," according to the study. "To fund the costs of the program, (Idaho) would need to either appropriate additional funding for a drug-testing program, or divert funds from current programs for the screening, testing and treatment activities."

In 1999, Michigan's random drug-testing of members of needy families who received temporary federal assistance lasted just five weeks before being ruled unconstitutional.

Despite legal challenges, however, drug testing is alluring for lawmakers suspicious that recipients of public assistants are doing illicit things while receiving taxpayer money.

Minnesota and Wisconsin now test convicted felons getting some forms of public assistance. Arizona requires about 12,500 people in one federal program to complete a drug-screening questionnaire, with some then undergoing drug screens.

New Mexico lawmakers are considering testing as a condition of state unemployment benefits. Missouri, Virginia, Kentucky and Nebraska lawmakers are also considering requiring drug-testing if the state suspects welfare applicants are using illegal drugs.

In Arizona, 12.5 percent of those screened tested positive. And before Michigan's random-testing program foundered in the courts, about 8 percent of its public assistance applicants tested positive.

Idaho state Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, the sponsor of last year's measure to commission the study, said he has yet to see its final conclusions.

But he said the results shouldn't be looked at solely in terms of cash savings. For instance, some people could choose to voluntarily forego illicit drugs for fear they could be tested, he said. And for those who do test positive, the state could direct them to treatment programs that could help change their lives, as well as those of their children.

"It's not a punishment tool," Wills said. "It's a tool to help people make good choices."

He isn't planning testing legislation but said he's heard other lawmakers are interested in the idea.

Monica Hopkins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Idaho already requires adults applying for temporary cash assistance for families complete a drug screening evaluation, though not a drug test. Those who score high on the screening are referred to a drug treatment program as a condition of receiving benefits.

And as a condition of receiving child care assistance, adults must work in an education or training program. As a result, the study's authors wrote state testing could be duplicative, if their jobs already require drug tests.

Idaho's study estimates that if all 10,500 people in Idaho's child care assistance and temporary cash assistance programs were tested, the costs of the tests and subsequent treatment of those with positive results would range from $1.2 to $1.3 million, depending on whether state staff or contracted workers conduct the drug tests. Savings, however, would total just $1.13 million.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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