Liz McCormick Published

Could Drug Testing Save W.Va. Dollars?


The debate over drug testing public assistance recipients was revisited in an interim session Monday. One of the issues on the table is how to make a pilot program work without costing the state additional dollars that are hard to come by.

The Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability met at the Capitol Monday to continue their discussion on a possible pilot program that would drug test public assistance recipients.

“A lot of people are interested in us having the testing program as one tool to decrease drug abuse in the state,” said Delegate Joe Ellington, a Republican from Mercer County and the chairman of the committee, “I, as a practicing obstetrician, see a lot of babies being born to drugs.”

Ellington says this is where many substance abuse problems start. The babies are born addicted to drugs and could either develop behavioral issues, or become more prone to addictive behaviors in the future.

“The current structure we have to help prevention and training and teaching and rehabilitation does not seem to be solving the problem. We’re not opposed to any of those parts. We want to try to enhance those efforts to decrease drug use, but we’re looking at other ways of identifying who is using drugs, so we can get them into programs.”

At the forefront of the discussion Monday were two bills introduced during the 2015 legislative session.

Senate Bill 348 would’ve created a pilot program for drug screening of cash assistance recipients. House Bill 2021 would’ve implemented drug testing for recipients of federal-state and other state assistance dollars.

While both bills had minor differences, what they did have in common was a requirement to drug test based on reasonable suspicion.

At the end of the 2015 session however, both bills were left on the table.

Now lawmakers are reconsidering the issue for the 2016 session.

The committee posed a few questions to the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Bureau for Public Health. They discussed the anticipated cost of target type enforcements on specific populations, the impact on pregnant women who abuse illicit drugs, and what happens to someone after they’ve tested positive for an illegal substance.

Lawmakers were trying to get a sense of how to potentially re-draft legislation that died last year.

But the question still stands – is drug screening of people in state assistance programs constitutional? And would it actually save the state money by implementing these kinds of tests?

Delegate Ellington thinks there’s a good chance.

“Data I received from DHHR previously, a couple years ago, said the average cost for detox was $230,000 a kid,” he said, “That’s a lot of money that could go back to our schools, to teacher pay, to education, to other services, to rehab, and then you look at the lost productivity and the livelihood of those kids and the future to grow up into, and that’s what we’re looking at – the future of our kids in West Virginia altogether.”

However, Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, says the facts show otherwise – many states that have implemented screening programs in the hopes of saving money, haven’t seen the results.

“Policies like this has really two goals, one to curb substance abuse and two to save state money by not paying people who are using drugs, but when you look at what other states have gone through it’s failed to achieve either one of those goals,” O’Leary said.

Thirteen states have passed legislation to drug test or screen public assistance applicants or recipients, and as of July 2015, at least 18 states have proposed legislation requiring some form of drug testing or screening.

West Virginia is one of those eighteen states.

“Under 1 percent of applicants are testing positive when they do, do these tests, so they’re not saving significant amounts of money,” O’Leary explained, “In some cases, they’re actually spending more money administering and collecting these results or these tests, then they are actually saving money from stopping people from using drugs and collecting assistance.”

O’Leary says there’s a misconception that drug abuse is more prevalent among low income people, when actually substance abuse can affect all walks of life.

Delegate Ellington says he knows finding the right legislation won’t be easy.

“The Senate one was looking at three counties as a smaller group to cut down the expense. The other, the House bill, looks at people that have a higher suspicion of drug use, whether they’ve had a previous conviction, or the children were born addicted to drugs, we know that those are positives, so that’s where the higher suspicion is. We want to just target that part. Will you miss some others, yes, but we’re looking at the numbers, we’re trying to decrease the number of testing that has to be done, and look at the number of individuals we can get back off. So there’s no great way to do it, but we’re trying to make an effort to.”

Next month, the committee on Health and Human Resources Accountability will likely begin to draft legislation that could become the new drug testing bill of 2016.