A bill passed the West Virginia Senate Wednesday that would require some low-income families receiving public assistance to be screened for illegal drugs. But senators debated whether this would help or hurt those most in need.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is a federal program that provides monthly checks to some of the lowest income families in the nation. It’s temporary in that a recipient can only receive the benefit for a total of five years in their life.
West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources ran a pilot program for three years that required some TANF recipients to be drug tested. That provision applied to anyone that had a recent drug conviction or was suspected of using drugs.
If a recipient is drug tested, and their test comes back positive for any illegal substance, including opioids or marijuana, that person is required to enter drug treatment or counseling, or risk losing their benefits.
The state agency, and proponents of the bill, say the program’s intent is to better connect those with a drug use disorder to treatment.
The Department of Human Resources reports that only one of the roughly 131 participants that failed a drug test ended up getting treatment through the program.
Still, Republican Sen. Michael Maroney of Marshall County, who is chair of the Senate’s health committee, said 95 of those 131 sought treatment outside of the DHHR program, according to Medicaid claims data. He sees that as a success.
“When we piece it all together it seems like this program is working,” he said.
But senators in opposition to the bill and program say it could also cause recipients who use drugs, and their children, to lose out on cash assistance that they need and qualify for. If someone screens positive, or fears they would screen positive, they might just drop out of the benefits program altogether.
Democratic Sen. Stephen Baldwin of Greenbrier County says there are other programs in the state that do help people enter treatment. And this measure is not one of them.
“Scapegoating poor people isn’t going to help,” he said.
The bill does say another adult in a child’s life can act as a designee for those benefits, but opponents say that is a bureaucratic burden that would still leave some kids behind.
The bill passed the Senate Wednesday. It now moves to the lower chamber. A companion bill remains in the House’s health committee. It would operate for a minimum of two years
As of December there were 6,000 TANF recipients; most are children.