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A Utah lawmaker said Wednesday that his proposal to require drug testing of some people who receive financial assistance is a "smarter, better way" than approaches in such states as Michigan and Florida and the House Human Services Committee agreed by approving the bill.
HB 155, sponsored by Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, would require Utahns seeking cash assistance through the state's Family Employment Program to fill out a questionnaire that screens for substance abuse. The program provides cash aid provided by the federal government through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF ) block grant.
If the questionnaire, considered highly reliable for predicting addictive behavior, shows substance abuse is likely, the person would be required to take a drug test. Anyone who tests positive for misuse of controlled substances would be required to receive a minimum of 60 days of drug treatment and test negative in order to continue receiving benefits. The state Department of Workforce Services, which oversees the program, would pay for the drug treatment.
The first time a person refuses to take or fails a test, he or she would be ineligible for cash assistance for 90 days. A second failure within one year would result in one year of ineligibility. The bill allows an exception for properly prescribed and over-the-counter medication.
The bill estimates the cost of providing drug treatment would be $169,100, money that would come out of the state's TANF allotment.
Wilson said the department already sanctions families who do not comply with aspects of individual employment plans; his proposal adds drug testing to the requirements.
The department estimates the screening questionnaire would lead to 5 percent to 10 percent of clients being required to take a drug test.
"This is an approach no one else around the country has tried," Wilson said.
Michigan lawmakers recently debated requiring all applicants for welfare benefits to undergo a drug test a program like that approved by the Florida Legislature, which is being challenged in court.
Currently, people are "washing out" of the Family Employment Program after several months when addiction issues interfere with their ability to follow through with other parts of their employment plan, Wilson said.
"If they don't execute the plan, they get cut off any way," Wilson said, adding that addressing substance abuse problems up front may increase likelihood of employment success.
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, questioned why Wilson focused on substance abuse when a 2006 study commissioned by Workforce Services showed physical health, lack of education, mental health and domestic violence issues were a much bigger barrier for many women seeking employment.
Karen Silver, an advocate with Salt Lake Community Action Program, asked if the department would also pay for child care for individuals while they complete tests or drug treatment. And Adam Troop, of the Utah Association of Counties, urged Wilson to enlist public drug treatment providers in shaping the program since they'll be involved in delivering services.