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Data is in: Drug screening of welfare applicants is a mixed bag

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Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, sponsored HB155, which imposes drug screening requirements for welfare applicants. Wilson and state officials say the program has saved much more than it's cost by prodding some applicants to walk away rather than submit to the extra scrutiny.

By cathy mckitrick

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 05 2013 02:09PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:33PM

Data from Utah’s first year of screening welfare applicants for drug and alcohol abuse reveal that the Department of Workforce Services spent over $30,000 on surveys and drug tests but saved an estimated $369,000 in unpaid benefits because of the scores of applicants who walked away rather than submit to the scrutiny.

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, sponsored HB155 last year, placing Utah among eight states that now link welfare assistance to drug testing in some way. The National Conference of State Legislatures website notes that 29 more states might follow suit.

"Our goal isn’t to weed people out of the program but to get them the help they need," Wilson said Wednesday. "I’ve seen the devastating effects of drug addiction, and I know what an obstacle that can be for people to get back on their own two feet," Wilson added. "There are things we can do to help if those individuals are willing to help themselves."

Under the new law, people applying for Utah’s Family Employment Program (FEP) — part of the federally funded Temporary Aid For Needy Families (TANF) — must take the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory or SASSI test, a tool that identifies individuals who have a high probability of addictive behavior.

Tagged individuals may then be required to submit to a drug test. Those testing positive must undergo treatment to continue receiving FEP benefits for their households.

Agency data show that 1,020 of 4,730 FEP applicants scored high on the SASSI, 466 were drug tested and 12 tested positive. Just four sought treatment.

Each SASSI costs $1.25 — totalling $5,912.50 for 4,730 applicants. The actual drug testing cost $25,654 for a combined total of $31,566.50.

Some 247 high-probability applicants failed to comply with requirements and were barred from reapplying for aid for 90 days, DWS Public Information Officer Nic Dunn said.

Because the average three-person household receives $498 per month in cash assistance, agency officials calculated that total cost savings for the 247 turned-away applicants and their dependent children was $123,006 a month, or $369,018 for the three-month period they were prohibited from reapplying.

DWS has no way of knowing for sure how many in that group — largely made up of people failing to register for tests or failing to show up for screening — were abusing drugs or alcohol, Dunn added.

That big gray area disturbs Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, an advocacy organization devoted to ending hunger in Utah within 30 years.

"Unless they follow through and find out why those people walked away, it’s a leap," Cornia said.

Cornia also voiced concerns about an information gap — that some might not have realized they could still receive benefits while undergoing treatment.

"To me, that’s a lost opportunity," Cornia said.

Florida’s stricter statute required drug testing all TANF applicants — a costly undertaking — and fewer than 3 percent tested positive, the Associated Press recently reported. That law was temporarily halted by a federal judge, with the 11th Circuit Court upholding the ruling. Florida’s governor will likely appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Drug testing welfare applicants is politically popular right now, Cornia said, but ignores factors she considers far more significant in shutting people out of work, such as domestic violence, mental illness, health issues and lack of education.

"You have to give priority to other significant barriers to employment," Cornia said. "That’s a conversation that I would welcome."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

twitter: @catmck

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