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Kansas follows Missouri’s path in testing suspected drug users on welfare

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, at 12:06 a.m.

Next year Kansas starts testing suspected drug users on welfare.

If Missouri and other states are any indication, Kansas will spend a lot to nab very few.

Missouri became the most recent state this year to install drug testing for welfare recipients. After eight months and 636 drug tests, the program turned up 20 people who tested positive and about 200 who refused to comply. Roughly 32,000 people in the state applied for assistance since testing began.

The program’s price: Nearly $500,000.

“I think it’s just astronomical,” said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, Mo. “It’s a horrible waste of state resources.”

Welfare drug testing – now in place in at least nine states – has been promoted by those who see it as a way to stop public dollars from buying illegal drugs and to give the poor a strong incentive to avoid substance abuse.

“It’s doing its job,” said Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, Mo. “People are taking a test and being held accountable for taking state aid.”

Like most other states, Missouri and Kansas test welfare recipients who are suspected of drug use, sometimes flagged by tests or a questionnaire.

Critics say drug testing singles out the poor, who they say are no more likely to use drugs than the general population. Those doubters continue to raise questions about the cost of drug testing and whether it’s producing the results supporters intended.

Two states this year – North Dakota and Virginia – rejected bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients. Those measures would have cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

Last August, Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed a drug testing bill, saying it was too costly and ineffective. Lawmakers overrode his decision, but McCrory vowed not to implement the law until legislators appropriated enough money to pay for the program.

“This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse,” McCrory said in a statement when he vetoed the measure.

Other states that have been testing welfare recipients have seen results similar to Missouri’s program.

•  Out of 4,086 drugs tests in Florida from July through October 2011, 108 tested positive. Court rulings stopped the program on the grounds it violated welfare recipients’ constitutional rights by requiring them to undergo testing regardless of whether they were suspected of using drugs.

Florida spent $115,000 on the testing and was forced to reimburse welfare recipients who had lost their benefits $600,000.

•  Eighty-three out of 1,890 people screened for drugs in Oklahoma tested positive from November 2012 through May 2013, the most recent data available from the state. The state spent about $83,000 on testing.

•  Only 14 people have tested positive in Utah out of 6,007 who have been screened for drugs from August 2012 through the end of October. The state has spent roughly $32,000 on the program.

“I have not seen any kind of credible data to this point to suggest these kinds of programs help people who are on drugs,” said Jason Williamson, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

Drug-testing costs vary widely from state to state. The expenses depend on who pays for the drug tests and treatment, whether computer systems need modification, and whether the program requires more staff time.

In Missouri, the Legislature appropriated $493,000 for drug testing for this fiscal year, including $336,00 for testing and tracking. That included $157,000 for staffing administrative hearings for people denied benefits.

From March 1, when the program started, through October, the state received 32,511 welfare applications. Of those, 636 were referred for drug testing.

Twenty tested positive, 194 refused to comply and 208 tested negative. Results were still not known for 214 people.

Even with less then two dozen positive tests, lawmakers who supported drug testing see signs of success.

They point out that nearly 200 people refused to comply with testing. Those people are denied access to welfare benefits for three years under the law.

“I almost see that as an admission you would fail. Why else would you not take it?” Brattin said.

Not so fast, says Newman. There’s no telling why people refused to cooperate with the system.

“Nobody knows those reasons,” she said.

Kansas’ plans

Kansas Sen. Jeff King, who authored the state’s testing plan, thinks a certain number of people will not apply for benefits if they think they will test positive. He says that needs to be considered in evaluating any drug-testing plan.

“There will be people who know they will test positive that will not put in applications,” said King, R-Independence.

King said statistics show that 8.5 percent of the welfare recipients will test positive. Most estimates show that it’s between 5 percent and 10 percent, according to a 2011 federal report.

Kansas is not expected to start testing welfare recipients until July 1. The state estimates it will cost nearly $1 million to implement, including about $600,000 for one-time computer system upgrades.

The state projects it will save about $700,000 from people who are temporarily or permanently denied assistance. While money is a factor, advocates see drug testing has a way of helping people kick their drug habits and land a job.

The Kansas law cuts off benefits for welfare recipients who are reasonably suspected of drug use and test positive. The benefits can be restored when a recipient completes a drug treatment and job skills program paid for with federal welfare funds.

A second failed test results in a year-long loss of benefits, while a third positive test results in losing the benefits permanently.

Like Missouri, a third party – an aunt or a grandfather, for instance – can apply for benefits on behalf of children whose parents fail a drug test.

The laws in Kansas and Missouri avoid the constitutional problems found with Florida’s law because they test only people suspected of drug use.

Federal courts have blocked blanket drug-testing programs for welfare recipients in Michigan and Florida because their laws violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. Welfare applicants in states such as Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah are required to answer questions that signal reasonable suspicion for further drug testing.

As Kansas draws up its drug-testing rules, there is concern about how “reasonable suspicion” will be defined.

“The question becomes who gets to determine what reasonable suspicion is and will that be applied in a fair manner,’’ said Tawny Stottlemire, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, a Topeka-based nonprofit group that fights poverty.

“If the reasonable suspicion thing is handled appropriately, I am not expecting a huge flood of people being dropped from public assistance.”

Reach Brad Cooper at 816-234-7724 or bcooper@kcstar.com.

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