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Panel favors drug tests for benefit recipients

by Claudia Lauer | March 27, 2015 at 2:32 a.m.
Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, presents a bill at a meeting of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, March 26, 2015.

An Arkansas legislative committee supported a bill Thursday that would create a pilot program to drug-test people who receive benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program.

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee supported Senate Bill 600, sponsored by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, in a voice vote. The bill, which was amended in committee, would authorize the state Department of Workforce Services to establish and administer a two-year program on suspicion-based drug screening and testing for each applicant and recipient in the assistance program.

"What I would like to do with this bill is have it be a deterrent. There is a cost, yes. But there is also a cost to the state of Arkansas when we have children in a home where drugs are being used, when we have families that are being ripped apart by drugs," said Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale. "The screening in this, we're only asking a few questions. If they get flagged for drugs, then they get tested."

The amended bill now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Under the original bill, the pilot program would have included at least "ten percent of the program population statewide to be determined by the department" and all applicants and recipients in the counties bordering Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee and any other state bordering Arkansas that has drug-screening or drug-testing.

The amendments Thursday leave the makeup of the pilot population up to the Department of Workforce Services.

The assistance program has 10,000 to 12,000 benefit recipients in Arkansas, the sponsors said.

Drug-testing would be conducted if the department "has a reasonable suspicion that the applicant has engaged in drug use," he said. The suspicion would stem from applicants' responses to written questions, he said. Eligibility for benefits would be cut off for six months under certain circumstances, such as if an applicant refuses to take a drug test or tests positive for drugs after a treatment period.

Lundstrum said if a person tested positive for drugs, the benefits wouldn't be lost entirely. She said if children were in the home, a different person would be put in charge of making sure the benefits reached the children.

Opponents argued that the drug-screening program, which has been put into effect in several other states, has proven to be expensive and yields few results. Marquita Little with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families cited statistics about similar programs in Indiana, Tennessee and Florida.

"It has been demonstrated that it is not very effective based on other state experiences. In Florida, only 2.5 percent of applicants actually tested positive. In Indiana, 1 percent of applicants who were tested, actually tested positive," Little said.

"These types of drug tests are really oftentimes based on flawed assumptions that there's a higher percentage of drug use among low-income families."

The pilot program would begin by Dec. 31 and expire after two years.

The bill's sponsors said the cost for the drug testing has ranged from $20 to $50 per person in other states.

If the applicant or recipient tests positive for drugs, then the applicant will pay the cost of the drug-testing, Johnson said previously. If the applicant or recipient doesn't test positive, the state will pay for the cost of the testing.

Metro on 03/27/2015

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