Advocates, Experts Blast Welfare Drug Testing Bill at Hearing

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(APN) ATLANTA — At a legislative hearing on Wednesday, February 15, 2012, at the Georgia Capitol, State Rep. Jason Spencer (R- Woodbine), one of the co-sponsors of HB 668–which would require people who receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) to submit to a drug test–sought to advance his bill. Instead, he met fierce opposition from advocates and experts who packed the room and who blasted the bill in their public testimony.
Rep. Spencer cloaked the bill in a mask of humanitarian concern to allegedly protect poor children and to allegedly strengthen families with addiction problems. Another purpose of the bill is to make sure TANF funds are not used to buy illicit drugs. According to the bill, people who apply for TANF will be required to submit to a drug test within forty-eight hours after their application is approved.

Anyone who receives Medicaid benefits will be required to pay a drug screening application fee of seventeen dollars. Anyone who is not receiving Medicaid but applies for Medicaid will be responsible for paying the full cost of administering the drug test. “The average drug urine test is between twenty-seven to thirty dollars, depending on vendor,” Spencer said.

Provisions in the bill for positive drug test results are: the first time a recipient has a positive test result he or she will be ineligible for TANF benefits for one month or until he or she tests negative in a retest. For a second positive result, no TANF benefits for three months. For a third positive result, no TANF benefits for three years.

People who are denied TANF benefits for three years may after one year reapply, if they have successful completed a substance abuse treatment program, such as a 90-day program, as long as it is offered by a provider approved by the department.

“What would happen to the children if the parents test positive and the benefits are cut off?” State Rep. Roger Lane (R-Darien) asked.

“A protective payee will be designated to receive benefits on behalf of the child. The designated individual will also undergo drug testing before being approved to receive benefits on behalf of the child,” Rep. Spencer said.

“The point of the bill is to not criminalize people, but to help move people into drug treatment programs. We have enough of our jails full of drug addicts,” Rep. Spencer said.

However, as recently reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the November 2011 report of Georgia’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform noted that the availability of drug treatment programs in Georgia are woefully inadequate, something mental health advocates have been telling APN for years. Late last year, APN interviewed Sen. John Albers and he said that the lack of treatment options was not part of his concern nor problem.

“The goal of the legislation isn’t to provide free programs. The goal is to make sure taxpayer dollars used wisely and not used for illegal activity,” Albers said.

Terren Bragdon, CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, spoke in support of HB 668. Bragdon presented results of Florida’s welfare cash drug testing law. “By the third month of the drug test requirements, there was a forty-eight percent drop in monthly approvals for cash welfare in Florida. Overall about one in five individuals who applied for cash welfare were denied for drug-related reasons. There are two drug related denial reasons: one, you took the test and the result was positive, and two, you did not take the drug test.”

However, Federal Judge Mary Scriven found Florida’s law unconstitutional in July 2011.

“The… court specifically noted that you can’t assume that the people who declined to take the drug test are drug users. It can be attributed to an inability to pay for the testing, a lack of laboratories near the resident of the applicant, inability to secure transportation to a laboratory, or a refusal to concede to what an applicant considers to be an unreasonable condition to receiving benefits,” Shelley Senterfitt, a family divorce lawyer, explained.

Senterfitt spoke on behalf of Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Georgia Women for a Change.

“Each family on cash welfare receives about 250 dollars a month and are on the program for four and a half months. Each drug-related denial saves the State of Florida about 1,125 dollars,” Bragdon said.

Neil Kaltenecker, Executive Director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, opposed HB 668. “I don’t stand here alone in opposing HB 668. A collaborative of Georgia’s associations of addiction professionals believes that drug testing as a condition of eligibility for basic public benefits or other public assistance is unsound public policy. We firmly believe that such an approach is not responsible, effective, or evidence-based,” Kaltenecker said.

Kaltenecker gave the representatives who were present at the hearing a handout that detailed reasons why HB 668 will not accomplish its objective and is opposed by addiction professionals. It included the following organizations who oppose the bill: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; American Public Health Association; Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs; Faces & Voices of Recovery; Juvenile Law Center; Legal Action Center; National Advocates for Pregnant Women; National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors; National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability; National Association of Social Workers; National Black Women’s Health Project; National Coalition for Child Protection Reform; National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; National Health Law Project; National Welfare Rights Union; and the Youth Law Center.

The legislation does not provide additional resources to treat individuals who test positive for drug problems. The legislation does state that neither the Department nor the State shall be responsible for providing or paying for substance abuse treatment.

According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Administration, in 2007, over 494,000 Georgians who needed treatment for alcohol abuse did not receive treatment; and over 212,000 Georgians who needed treatment for drug abuse did not receive treatment for drug abuse.

“We have a huge unmet need for treatment. Proposed resources for HB 668 would be better used to fill the current addiction treatment gap,” Kaltenecker said.

“The American Society of Addiction Medicine last year redefined addiction as a preventable, treatable, chronic brain disorder. Doctors are saying that you must treat addiction as a brain disease. HB 668 does not help — it takes out one small slice of this population and stigmatizes people who are the most vulnerable,” Kaltenecker said.

“This testing is a very broad sweep on a population that we have no reason to believe is substance abusing as a group. This legislation would hurt children and cast a cloud of suspicion around a whole group of people who are trying to apply for safety net programs to support their children in a terrible economy,” Linda Lowe with Families First testified.

“TANF is an important resource for victims of domestic violence who are trying to get free and are running for their lives. We believe TANF is not accessible enough in Georgia and this bill will create another barrier which will have the unintended consequence of further entrapping victims of domestic violence,” Senterfitt said.

“We are also concerned about the constitutionality of this law, the Florida case which is pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. And also Georgia has made case law on this issue in the 1990 case of Chandler v. Miller,” Senterfitt testified.

Judge Scriven, in her ruling last year, noted the State of Florida had enacted a demonstration project between 1999 and 2001, in which they drug tested welfare recipients whom they had a reasonable cause to believe were drug users. Of those tested, only 5.1 percent of the test results came back positive; this is lower than that of the general population which was estimated to be 8.13 percent.

“In the court’s opinion what is significant is the special needs exception where the court said you can’t just list some reasons for passing legislation, you actually need evidence. The court found in the Florida case that they had evidence to the contrary. I haven’t heard any evidence today of any studies done in Georgia that would support that TANF is funding drug use,” Senterfitt said.

Last year, Shawna Mercer, with the Senate Press Office, told APN they knew of no data showing levels of drug use among welfare recipients in Georgia.

The 1990 Chandler v Miller case involved a Georgia statute which required candidates for certain state office to certify that they had taken a drug test and obtained negative results. In 1994, three candidates filed an action against the Gov. Zell Miller and two other state officials. They alleged the drug test violated their rights under provisions including the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the US.

The Supreme Court of the US struck down Georgia’s law requiring candidates to submit to suspicion-less drug testing.

“Are you aware that a mandatory drug test for applicants for state jobs has been declared unconstitutional in Georgia?” State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver asked Rep. Spencer.

“I have not heard that,” Rep. Spencer replied.

(END/2012)

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