A statewide program to screen some new welfare applicants for drug use has led to five people being denied government benefits over a four-month period, according to Department of Workforce Services data.
The data released this week from the department -- which distributes benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program -- show that it tested two applicants since it began administering the tests April 1.
One person failed the test, and another four refused to take it, making them temporarily ineligible to receive benefits.
In a memo sent to lawmakers in late March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he would direct the department to begin statewide testing of new applicants to the assistance program, commonly known as welfare. Annual cost estimates for the testing program were initially pegged at up to $1.7 million, though the department quickly reduced that number to $100,000.
On Thursday, department spokesman Steve Guntharp said the original estimates included expensive administrative costs that were later dropped.
Originally, the department had sought to hire a third-party consultant to develop a screening tool to help determine which applicants needed to take the drug tests. Instead the department developed its own questionnaire, which raises suspicion based on an applicant's answers to two questions about drug use in the previous 30 days.
The department also did away with a plan to take over from the Department of Human Services the process of determining who is eligible for the monetary assistance.
Lastly, Guntharp said the department simply overestimated the number of tests that would be required.
"I'm not sure we ever had a solid number, it was just an estimate when it was originally done and it tried to cover everything," Guntharp said.
The cost of the two drug tests, conducted by a'TEST Consulting Services Inc. in North Little Rock, was $139.50. Two more applicants are awaiting testing, according to the numbers provided by the department.
Guntharp said 800 families or individuals had applied for welfare assistance since the drug tests began. Within those applications, eight people were flagged for potential drug use based on their responses to the questionnaire, and four declined testing.
Drug testing of welfare recipients was approved by the Legislature as a two-year pilot program under Act 1205 of 2015. The sponsors of that act, state Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, and state Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, could not be reached for comment about the results Thursday.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Hutchinson, said the numbers showed the state was successful in its goal of encouraging drug users to get help or removing them from the program. He pointed to a provision of the law that allows children to continue to receive funding if a guardian tests positive.
"If accountability is the target of this program, then it has been successful to date," Davis said.
Democrats who disapproved of Hutchinson's statewide expansion of the pilot program earlier this year argued that the costs of the program were not recouped by its expected savings of $40,000, and that it unfairly targeted poor people.
"I still question the goals and whether they are accomplishing what the people of Arkansas think is happening or would like to see happening," said state House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta. "If we only flagged eight people, was it a problem we needed to address?"
Under the 2015 law, a positive result does not make a person ineligible to receive assistance if the person who failed the test agrees to undergo drug treatment. While Medicaid can be used to cover treatment, federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds cannot.
Guntharp said the department will determine on a case-by-case who pays for treatment if a person without Medicaid tests positive.
The only person to test positive so far declined to enter treatment.
About 2,000 Arkansans are currently receiving support from the temporary assistance program, Guntharp said. Monthly payments range from $81 for an individual to $457 for a family of nine or more.
Metro on 08/05/2016
Print Headline: State drug-test program leads to denial of welfare to 5