Drug testing for TANF recipients moves forward

Brennan Stebbins

Legislation approved by the Missouri House could mean drug testing for applicants and recipients of need-based state aid.

House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Brandom (R-Sikeston), would require testing of individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds if there is reasonable suspicion to believe the person is illegally using a controlled substance. A failed test could mean a loss of TANF funds for at least a year.

“Hardworking Missouri taxpayers, most of them have had to take a drug test to get their job and they feel like the use of their taxpayer money to subsidize drug users is inappropriate,” Brandom said after a Senate committee hearing for the bill on Wednesday.

Though reasonable suspicion is not defined in the legislation, the bill does call for the Dept. of Social Services to create a screening program for applicants and recipients. A positive test would lead to an administrative hearing, and then a one-year suspension of aid followed by another drug test.

Anyone failing a test would be referred to a substance abuse treatment program approved by the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Meanwhile, other members of the family could continue to receive TANF payments.

“The only person who would lose the TANF would be the parent and that amount of money would be $58,” Brandom said. “The children would keep their money under TANF but it would be handled by a third party. The drug user could be tested again and then receive their aid.”

Brandom said her bill could be an incentive for people to give up drugs, and could also improve the lives of more than just the user.

“Not everybody who takes drugs is an addict, and this would hopefully be an incentive to give up drugs,” Brandom said.

“One of the horrible side effects of women using drugs is that they use them during their pregnancy,” she added. “Women who used meth or crack can do terrible nerve and brain damage to their children in the womb and this can’t be reversed once it happens. Then to make it worse, these dysfunctional children go home to a dysfunctional family where you have more than one child with the same problem, they end up on psychiatric drugs and guess where they go next. They go to the public school system. This is an attempt to motive people to give up their drugs to qualify for TANF and if they have a serious problem to help them get help.”

QUESTIONS RAISED

The bill was approved by the House 104-45 and has strong support from Sen. Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau), who sponsored an identical bill in the Senate, but the hearing provided an opportunity for those opposed to the legislation to point out possible problems.

Gerrit DenHartog, a policy analyst dealing with substance abuse and addiction, argued against wording of the bill for most of the hearing.

“The intent is clear, if you are to believe the sponsor, and I choose to,” DenHartog said. “The sponsor is interested in helping people get well, people who are sick, people who are addicted, people who have problems related to the use of drugs, but it doesn’t deal with alcohol and it should.

“The way the bill is written and the lack of attention to detail, especially the lack of attention to the money it would cost to provide appropriate services to help those people, I just have a hard time accepting the bill as it is without those changes,” he said.

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates the cost on the General Revenue Fund at an unknown amount, but greater than $4.1 million for fiscal year 2010, greater than $5 million or FY 2011 and greater than $5.1 for FY 2012.

“The bill doesn’t tell us what kind of screening would be done,” DenHartog said. “It doesn’t say who would provide the training to those people doing the screening. It doesn’t’ say whether confirmatory tests would be possible in those cases where there are false positives. The bill is too simple.

“It doesn’t address the details that are necessary if it’s a legal requirement that people be drug tested to qualify for TANF payments or if they are receiving TANF payments,” he added. “If it becomes a legal requirement then we ought to pay attention to those legal questions.”

DenHartog and Crowell went back and forth during the hearing on the issue of treatment for those failing a drug test, with DenHartog wanting more specifics from the bill, and Brandom addressed the talking point afterwards.

“I realize people talking for information purposes kind of kept coming back again and again to money and treatment programs, but there’s more than one kind of treatment program and sometimes the treatment program where you go away for 30 days, that’s not always the answer, that doesn’t necessarily help solve the problem,” she said.

“When the federal law was drafted that established TANF, it very carefully spelled out that a state could develop a substance abuse test to qualify for TANF,” she added.