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Beginning Wednesday, first-time or lapsed clients seeking cash assistance through Utah's Department of Workforce Services must first take an online drug-screening survey to determine whether they are likely substance abusers.

Those who score high will then need to take an actual drug test. While a positive reading will not block access to aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, applicants will be required to get into drug treatment programs and stay clean or those benefits will be cut off.

The new policy stems from HB155, a bill spearheaded by Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, during the 2012 legislative session.

An estimated five to 10 percent of TANF recipients are drug-dependent, Wilson said, "and we hoped to get them the help they need early in the process and get them back to work quicker."

Most TANF clients will qualify for Medicaid, which will help cover the cost of their treatment, Wilson added.

However, advocates for the low income raised concerns about potential fallout.

"From the beginning we've opposed drug testing folks who are applying for public assistance," said Gina Cornia, executive director for Utahns Against Hunger. She views such policies as demeaning distractions from the core mission of getting parents into meaningful work."The big underlying issue for me," Cornia said, "is the assumption that people who need state assistance must be doing something wrong."

Michigan and Florida faced legal challenges when they mandated drug testing of TANF recipients, and in both cases those laws were struck down as unconstitutional.

According to Utah DWS spokesman Curt Stewart, licensed clinical therapists will assess the results of the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory, or SASSI, an online tool that applicants can complete within 15 to 20 minutes.

Information on the National Institutes of Health website describes the psychological screening measure as 93 percent accurate.

HB155 penalizes TANF clients who refuse to take drug tests or who fail the tests and refuse treatment or who get treatment and do not stay clean. They become ineligible for cash assistance for 90 days upon the first occurrence within one year. The second occurrence during that year cuts off benefits for a period of one year.

Sharon Abegglen, emergency services director for Salt Lake Community Action Program, worries that the new law could further denigrate an already vulnerable population.

"[Drug use] is a reality of our society, and we still need to treat people as human beings," Abegglen said. "It's important that we address the real issue and not be punitive."

Abegglen also said she is concerned about how children could be impacted.

"We have to be careful what we take on and look at the entire family when services are not provided," Abegglen said.

False positives often occur on drug tests. While DWS absorbs the cost of the first drug test, a client who tests positive and requests a second test must pay for it out of pocket and will be reimbursed only if the result is negative, Stewart said.

Adam Trupp, general counsel for Utah Association of Counties, said he watched HB155 carefully as it made its way through the legislative process "to make sure it didn't go too far."

His conclusion: "As long as there were efforts to provide treatment along with testing, it seemed like a reasonable approach."

However, Utah's current treatment capacity already falls short of meeting the needs of the general population, Trupp said.

"If there is no demonizing of people on public assistance and no blanketing of benefit recipients as drug users," he said, "then we're comfortable with the concept of getting more people into treatment."

cmckitrick@sltrib.comTwitter: @catmck —

What is the SASSI test?

The test was first published in 1988 by the private SASSI Institute, based in Indiana. The brief, self-reported screening measure is available in separate versions for adults and adolescents. Both help identify individuals who have a high probability of having a substance-dependence disorder. The company claims the adult test has an overall accuracy rate of 93 percent, and the teen SASSI is 94 percent accurate.

Source: The SASSI Institute