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State Senate votes to extend welfare drug screening program

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to allow the state to continue a three-year program to screen recipients of public assistance for drug use.

Senate Bill 387 relating to drug screening of applicants for cash assistance passed 24-9 with Democratic Sens. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, and Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, voting with the Republican majority.

SB 387 would extend a three-year pilot program through the Department of Health and Human Resources which screens applicants of West Virginia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The program would continue to Dec. 31, 2022, and gives the secretary of DHHR authority to continue the program beyond that date.

“DHHR believes this program needs to be extended,” said Senate Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. “It seems like this program is working, and that’s why DHHR wants to continue this program.”

Also known as WV WORKS, the program requires TANF applicants to complete a drug screening questionnaire. Any applicant suspected of drug use is required to undergo a drug test. If the test comes back positive, the applicant must complete a substance abuse treatment and counseling program, as well as a job skills program. Applicants who refuse a drug screening can be denied services.

The WV WORKS program provides financial support for low-income families, job training, help with finding work and childcare assistance. Program participants are required to be working or looking for work and have children.

The Legislature created the drug screening program as a three-year pilot project in 2016 through Senate Bill 6 introduced by former Republican Sen. Ryan Ferns of Ohio County. DHHR implemented the program in 2017 after the law was approved by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have similar drug screening bills for people on public assistance.

Supporters of such legislation claim it is meant to help people with substance abuse problems get clean and live productive lives. Opponents claim drug screening programs unfairly stereotype low-income families, are a waste of taxpayer dollars and find relatively low numbers of people suffering from substance abuse.

An amendment offered Tuesday by Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, would have exempted marijuana from the lists of drugs screened for by DHHR. The state is in the final stages of implementing a medical cannabis program, with potential patients already applying for medical cannabis cards, though products are not ready for distribution. The amendment was rejected 11-21.

During the three-year pilot, only one applicant out of 131 who tested positive for drug use successfully completed a treatment program, while 95 out of the 131 have filed claims with Medicaid for funding for substance abuse treatment. According to DHHR, 6,056 received TANF dollars in 2020, with 4,534 of that total being children, many of which are in the state’s foster care program.

During questioning of Maroney by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, it was revealed that of the 11,000 people who went through the pilot program, only about 1,000 took the drug screening questionnaire, with 131 having to be drug tested. Speaking against the bill, Baldwin said the program stereotypes low-income families as drug users while not being an effective means of helping people with substance abuse problems.

“This pilot program has helped one person and I don’t want to discount that … but how many children, at the same time this has helped one person, has this deprived someone of resources either because that one adult in their life dropped out of the program, didn’t show up or was one of the 131 who tested positive. I’m quite certain it was more than one.”

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, said it was “common sense” TANF dollars were likely being used for buying illegal and illicit drugs, citing no evidence of this assertion under questioning by Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha.

“You just made a statement to this body that the cash assistance is used for drugs,” Lindsay said to Karnes. “I want to know what that is based upon.”

“The cash that goes into their pocket and mixes with the other cash in their pocket and they’re paying cash for the drugs,” Karnes responded. “It’s a logical thing. I don’t have to have evidence to show that. Common sense shows that.”

The bill’s next stop is the House of Delegates.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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