Department of Human Services says drug-testing welfare recipients is “feasible,” agency still in early process of developing policy

My last week at the Saginaw News, I came across another news outlet’s story. It was just a blurb, a mention of a bill that was proposed to our state legislature. It turned out to be a major story — this and related posts turned out to be at the top at for several days. At, we did quick-hit posts and then often do follow-ups, with polls and reactions from other sources. This was my major, initial story. 

As it stands now, the bill was approved by the state house — I’m curious to see if it makes it to the governor’s desk. But this generated very passionate reactions from both sides.

View the original story here.

SAGINAW — The Department of Human Services says it is still in the “early process” of developing a drug screening policy for cash-assistance welfare benefit recipients.

David Akerly, DHS spokesman said the answers to the questions of how the policy would be implemented and when the policy would take effect are not available yet.

“We have determined it is feasible to do this testing,” Akerly said. “What the exact process would be — that’s still to be determined… it’s being discussed, and I’d say it’s more than just a discussion. It’s a push in that direction, but it is not a done deal.”

Saginaw County has 1,863 cases of welfare cash assistance recipients, Bay County has 463 cases, and Midland County has 177 cases.

Michigan Radio reported Monday that “likely” drug using welfare recipients would receive the testing.

DHS officials say they want the new policy to be part of an overhaul of the state’s welfare-to-work program in the spring of next year.  The department submitted a report with its recommendations to the Legislature earlier this month.

A DHS report (read it here: dhsreport.pdf) says a variety of drug screening options are available, from simple questions on the application to professional screening tools.

The report says DHS would recommend a pilot program for suspicion-based drug testing of applicants and recipients using a drug screening process, but does not specify what would warrant suspicion. The agency recommended drug court treatment professionals and law enforcement’s assistance in formulating a proposal for drug testing applicants and recipients.

“One of the primary goals of a suspicion-based drug testing for FIP (family independence program) families should be removing any barriers associated with job readiness and family self-sufficiency,” the report said.

kenhorn.JPGView full sizeState Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth

Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, says he supports drug testing welfare recipients.

“We want to make sure tax dollars are being paid in the state of Michigan are being used for their intended purpose,” Horn said.

However, before mandating testing, which he said is “popular,” Horn wants to make sure the state does not get struck down in the court like other states that have implemented such policies.

It is unclear how much drug testing welfare recipients would cost — twelve states were surveyed by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, who found costs ranged from $92,487 to $20 million. In Michigan, that would not prove a net savings, and states at the higher end of the price spectrum also included drug treatment in their costs.

Urinalysis runs from $25 to $44 per test and hair follicle testing costs $75 to $150 per test.

Thirty-six states have proposed laws that would require applicants for and recipients of public aid programs to undergo drug testing by way of a urine sample.

Most recently, Florida and Missouri implemented drug testing laws, with different approaches.

Florida’s law became effective in July and required all welfare applicants to pass a suspicionless drug test as a condition for Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In October, however, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing Florida’s Department of Children and Families from further drug testing.

Missouri’s law went into effect in August, and requires the state’s Department of Social Services to develop a program to screen each applicant or recipient of TANF benefits and drug test each person the department has reasonable cause to believe, based on a screening, engages in illegal use of controlled substances.

Horn says the frequency of testing is something that causes concern and is what is leading the legislature to act with caution. He said one of the questions they are trying to answer is if recipients need to be tested when first entering the program, every time they receive a check and if every recipient is tested.

“It’s a big question,” Horn said. “The randomness of it is what causes the heartburn in the courts… we’re just acting cautiously.”

This isn’t Michigan’s first time drug testing welfare recipients. For several weeks in 1999, eligibility for cash assistance for some recipients was dependent on a successful test for substance abuse.

A pilot program ran, testing 435 applicants for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and phencyclidine. Forty-five, or 10.3 percent tested positive for drug use.

Initially the pilot program was to go statewide in April 2003, according to the DHS document, but after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled against DHS saying the drug testing violated Fourth Amendment rights of recipients because testing was being conducted without “individualized suspicion.”

The only way such suspicionless tests would be justifiable would be with a public safety “special need,” and that the state’s interest in child abuse and neglect prevention was not a sufficient public safety concern.

In October 2002, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and said the implementation of the state program to test applicants for drug use was constitutional as a condition of receiving benefits. The parties reached a settlement in 2003, and the injunction on suspicionless drug tests remained until 2007, unless the legislature created a replacement pilot program. No such program was created, and the injunction expired.

The DHS report says that cash-assistance program is designed to make families independent and self-sufficient — considering many employers require applicants to submit to and pass a drug test before employment, illegal drug use is a barrier to employment and is a barrier to independence and self-sufficiency.

Horn says DHS agents would have to make judgment calls themselves on whether or not to test applicants.

“If a case worker notices someone is visibly intoxicated or visibly on drugs, they would have enough authority to ask for the test,” he said. “The conversation is good, we need to come to a very clear, concise policy platform we can work off of.”

According to the ASPE report, substance abuse varies widely nationwide among welfare recipients. Between 4 and 37 percent of recipients abusing substances was found, but ASPE credits the differentials to different data sources, definitions and measurement methods, especially different thresholds defining substance abuse. It said including abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs also changed the estimate.

Federal law allows drug tests for welfare recipients, and penalization for failing such tests. If a recipient fails the test or is convicted of a drug-related felony, they receive a lifetime ban on TANF and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).

Horn said it is unclear when progress will be made on drug testing mandates in the legislature, but it is likely to come up in the next few months.

“Just like every other important policy decision, we just need to act cautiously,” he said. “This is an important issue, a popular issue and we want to make sure we’re on the right track, and make sure we’re not stepping on any land mines with anything we do.”

The Saginaw News left messages for state Rep. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, state Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes, D-Saginaw, and state Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township.

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