Monday, March 28, 2016

Drug-testing welfare recipients: Costs outweigh benefits. Also: questions about treatment

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 6:57 AM

click to enlarge WHAT'S THE POINT: Gov. Asa Hutchinson says drug-testing welfare recipients is a blow at drug dependency, not merely a punitive measure. Others say the benefits don't begin to approach the costs.
  • WHAT'S THE POINT: Gov. Asa Hutchinson says drug-testing welfare recipients is a blow at drug dependency, not merely a punitive measure. Others say the benefits don't begin to approach the costs.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
defended statewide testing of certain welfare recipients last week as a blow at drug dependence, not merely a punish-the-poor policy to mollify opponents of welfare assistance.

John Lyon of the Arkansas News Bureau looks at some depth at the subject here. The story recapitulates key points:

* The state will spend an inordinate amount to "catch" a tiny number of drug users among families that receive temporary cash assistance to keep kids' bodies and souls together during periods of unemployment.

* The nationwide experience is that drug testing plans turn up relatively few drug users among the poor. They can't afford it, for one thing.

The story doesn't note, as I did yesterday, that drug testing laws grew out of a right-wing think tank full of ideas about constricting the size of government.

My simple point: If Gov. Asa Hutchinson's real concern is drug dependency — and abuse of prescription drugs is epidemic these days — why start with a focus on a slice of the population demonstrably less likely to be abusers based on national experience? Why not undertake a broad-based program to provide drug treatment programs for all?

You may judge whether this idea is part of a broad assault on the welfare class by the added payments Hutchinson wants to put on people receiving Obamacare's Medicaid expansion; by his omission of the working poor from his income ax cuts; by his refusal in the campaign to support a minimum wage increase, and other policies hurtful to poor people.

Arkansas has endeavored to protect its drug-testing program from a legal challenge by first "screening" recipients for drug tests. To do this, they will ask welfare recipients if they've used drugs. 5th Amendment, anyone? But, also, those who admit drug use and then get tested won't be denied welfare benefits if they agree to treatment and continued testing. (What treatment is envisioned for the occasional smoker of a joint isn't yet known — Just Say No, perhaps?)

A lingering question remains about who will pay for that treatment program. Lyon's article says the state will not pay. A sponsor of the legislation has said the same. Defenders of the program say most recipients of this welfare money are Medicaid eligible and should qualify for drug treatment programs under Medicaid. But state officials are not ready to guarantee that in every case. This is the answer I got from Daryl Bassett, head of the Workforce Services Department on that particular question last week:

Is it guaranteed that a drug treatment program will provided for TANF recipients under Medicaid or some other means? Some seem to suggest that if you qualify for TANF you are automatically covered by Medicaid and automatically have access to paid coverage. Can you help me on this?

Most of the individuals on the TEA / Work Pays program are also potentially eligible for Medicaid services. Depending on the nature of the substance abuse treatment, individuals could qualify to pay for treatments through the Medicaid programs. This will ultimately be handled on a case by case basis.
So, maybe, maybe not.  

This remains the broader concern:
“We were disappointed to hear about the plan to expand that program because programs like this have such a bad track record in other states,” said Ellie Wheeler, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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