Test results show little evidence of drug use by NC welfare recipients

The initial results of a drug testing program for some public assistance applicants are finding little evidence of widespread drug use among the poor in North Carolina.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — The initial results of a drug testing program for some public assistance applicants are finding little evidence of widespread drug use among the poor in North Carolina.

In 2013, state lawmakers approved a measure requiring testing for Work First, a cash assistance program for needy families. Under the terms of the law, applicants who raised flags on a screening test or who had a felony for drugs within the past three years must pass a drug test to be eligible for benefits.

The program was not implemented immediately by Gov. Pat McCrory because state lawmakers appropriated no funds to pay for the testing.

After funding was allocated in the 2014 budget, the Department of Health and Human Services set up the program, contracting with Oregon-based Fortes Laboratories to handle the testing at a cost of $55 per sample. The urine test checks for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, opium and phencyclidine, or PCP.

According to state Division of Social Services director Wayne Black, testing began last August in all 100 counties.

According to data supplied by the Dept. of Health and Human Services, out of about 7,600 cases reviewed from August to December, about 150 met the criteria to require a drug test. Out of those 150, 70 failed to show up for their test appointments, and 21 applicants – about 14 percent of those referred – tested positive. Some applicants may have first missed an appointment, but later rebooked and then tested positive or negative, DHHS staff explained.

Even if all 70 who failed to show up would have tested positive, the total – 91 – represents about 1 percent of all reviewed Work First cases.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, suggested that many applicants who would have tested positive never got to the screening stage.

"Most people going in who’ve put in an application find out they need a drug test, (and) they’re simply not showing back up again," Hise said.

However, Black said that the number of applications for assistance and assistance caseload both increased after the testing was implemented, compared with the preceding five months.

"We do not believe drug testing has had a negative effect," he told a legislative committee.

Black explained that the testing program doesn’t cut off support for children or other family members.

"Those who do not take the test, refuse to take the test or test positive for drugs, as long as they complete all the other requirements of eligibility, are able to get a Work First check, but it would be reduced by the amount of the head of the household," he said.

For example, he explained, a single parent with two children would normally get $272 per month. If the parent failed his or her drug test, the check would be reduced to $236.

"Individuals who test positive are able to go seek drug treatment and then come back and do a test after 30 days, but they have to pay for the test the second go-round in order to get back on the program," Black said.

So far, the program has cost the state about $4,900.

Hise said the program’s therapeutic value makes it worthwhile.

"It’s an important program for us, most importantly because we’re referring these individuals for treatment, and that’s when we’ll really determine the success of this program," he said.

Black said the agency has been screening for drug and alcohol abuse and referring applicants to treatment since 1996, when the Work First program was first implemented in North Carolina under a federal welfare reform act.

"We’re just using the drug abuse screening tool as the criteria upon which to determine whether a drug test is required as part of eligibility," Black said

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said when the law was passed that it was a waste of money. She said Tuesday that the report proves she was right.

"They found very few applicants. Plus, the process is already in place in terms of asking questions and making those referrals," Robinson said. "So, we just wasted state dollars, in terms of that piece of legislation and in terms of the time and staff all across the state."


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