By Mechelle Hankerson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – If some state lawmakers have their way, Virginians seeking social service benefits may have to submit to mandatory drug tests before receiving public assistance.
A House subcommittee has rolled several similar proposals into House Bill 73, which is sponsored by Delegate Dickie Bell, R-Staunton. It would allow local social services departments to conduct drug tests if they have “probable cause” before allowing an applicant to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Prospective clients who do not pass the mandated drug test would be ineligible for TANF benefits for a year.
The TANF program helps pay for family expenses, with the goal that families gradually become financially independent.
Besides Bell’s legislation, four other House bills proposed drug testing for social service recipients: HB 955, by Delegate Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville; HB 249, by Delegate Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst; HB 598, by Delegate Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville; and HB 221, by Delegate Chris Head, R-Roanoke.
Last week, the health and human resources subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee combined all of the bills into HB 73.
That legislation says the government would pay for the drug tests. It also includes provisions for substance abuse treatment for aid recipients who fail the tests. Those points seek to address criticisms raised by opponents of the drug testing requirement.
Holly Coy, director of programs at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said the bills are an attempt to make sure government money isn’t wasted. But she fears the proposals defeat the purpose of social services programs.
“While (the bills) seem rather benign, the implications it has on Virginians is that in some cases, those individuals who are most in need of services are unable to get them,” Coy said.
Bell said he introduced the bill because of concerns voiced by his constituents in House District 20, which includes Staunton, Waynesboro and Highland County and parts of Augusta and Nelson counties.
But Anita Harris, assistant director of Shenandoah Valley Social Services, said she doesn’t believe that substance abuse is an issue for her department.
Harris said it’s possible that participants are using drugs or other substances, but other requirements in the program would make it difficult to be eligible while having a serious substance abuse problem.
For example, participants must complete 30 job searches a week until they find regular employment to keep their TANF benefits, Harris said.
“If they have substance abuse problem that keeps them from doing that, they’re going to be ineligible anyway,” she said.
Harris’ bigger concern is what might happen to children whose parents are deemed ineligible for TANF.
“That’s the Catch-22,” Harris said. “They do the drug testing and they’re out of the program, but what happens to the children?”
Under the bill, money would be paid to a third party to ensure that children in the family would still be cared for.
Bell’s bill explicitly states that the drug tests would be paid for by the department – a cost that could range from $40 to more than $100, according to Harris. (State budget analysts estimated the cost of a formal drug assessment/test at $345.)
Harris said the costs of drug testing could reduce the amount of money Social Services can spend on other areas, such as transportation to help participants get to work.
“It’s a very expensive program to try to do locally,” Harris said. She said the department estimated a yearly cost between $26,000 and $67,000 for local offices.
Statewide, the cost would be about $1.6 million next year and $1.3 million the following year, according to the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget. Those figures include the money the state would save in TANF benefits.
Another bill before the House would require anyone seeking unemployment benefits to provide the results of a drug test from an accredited lab.
HB 148, sponsored by Delegate Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale, says, “Any individual who fails or refuses to provide the results of such a test or who tests positive for the use of a nonprescribed controlled substance shall be ineligible to receive benefits.”
Ransone’s bill has been assigned to the House Commerce and Labor Committee.