Cost of welfare drug screening pared to $100,000 by agency
In less than a week, the estimated price tag for a statewide drug screening and testing program for some welfare recipients dropped from around $1.5 million to under $100,000.
On Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the estimated cost to the Department of Workforce Services to screen and test some welfare applicants for drug use is ultimately unknown and that the success of the pilot program — which will begin soon — will require attention from state officials.
“I like what we’re doing,” Hutchinson said. “In terms of the cost of it, obviously, we don’t know how many people will require a drug test itself. … We expect it to be rather minimal, but we’ll continue to monitor it.”
Hutchinson’s staff emailed lawmakers March 22 to inform them that the program enabled by Act 1205 of 2015 — which would require drug screening and potential testing for those applying for federal and state assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program– would be adopted statewide.
Some lawmakers were critical, saying the program was originally advertised as a pilot that would be applied to applicants in the state’s border counties.
That criticism was also fueled by projected costs, which ranged from $1.4 million to $1.7 million to implement the program. And according to a Workforce Services study, it would only generate about $40,000 in savings.
Spokesmen for Hutchinson and Workforce Services said the million-dollar estimates were based on worst-case scenarios and that as state officials put together policies and procedures, they were able to find efficiencies and savings.
A detailed summary or explanation of how the estimated cost fell so far from last week’s estimate was unavailable.
Those applying for benefits through the state-administered welfare program will have to submit to a drug-screening process as part of their qualification.
If an applicant is selected for testing and refuses, he is ineligible for benefits. If an applicant tests positive for drugs, he can still receive assistance if he follows a corrective plan that may include counseling or rehabilitation.
If an applicant fails to follow the plan or tests positive again, his family can still receive assistance but the applicant cannot directly access it.
Asked about how he felt about criticism over broadening the program statewide, Hutchinson said Tuesday that it’s his job to “fulfill the legislative mandates” of Act 1205, which allowed state officials to broaden the program.
Despite the criticism, Hutchinson said he was optimistic.
“We think we’ve rolled it out very well, very carefully, studying what’s happening in other states … getting the best models in place,” Hutchinson said.
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said other states that have done similar programs have not seen much in savings, or impact, but have only seen costs grow.
According to a study by the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington D.C.-based, nonpartisan group that advocates for poorer Americans, about 12 other states have implemented testing requirements similar to those in Arkansas.
A study considered by Workforce Services officials when designing the state’s program found that costs in some states grew while savings were “minimal.”
Even if the cost of administering the program is $100,000, with a projected $40,000 in savings, Leding said, the program still offers a bad return on investment.
“I still think [the program] is a noble idea but a misguided idea,” Leding said. “It’s noble to want to make sure we’re not sending taxpayer dollars to drug users. … But it’s my understanding we’re not going to do much to help them get that treatment we’re requiring of them.”
Leding, who voted against the legislation in 2015 when he was told it would only be applied to counties along the Arkansas border, said those already in need of assistance likely can’t afford private treatment.
But state officials said that to avoid litigation, the program needed to be applied statewide instead of in isolated areas. They also said welfare funds can be used to pay for drug testing but not treatment.
Leding suggested that the timing of the initiative, one embraced by many of the state’s conservatives, was a way for Hutchinson to build support for his revisions to the state’s private option, now called Arkansas Works, which is the subject of a special legislative session next week.
“It’s good politics, but it’s bad policy,” he said. “I hope that I’ll have to admit I was wrong and that we have people coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘I need help,’ and we’re able to do something about it … but really, it’s just one more way of stigmatizing being poor. No one who qualifies for the capital-gain tax cuts has to take a drug test.”
Leding said he would support an idea floated by Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, days ago that would require legislators to be tested for drugs. Tucker said Tuesday that his proposal was “tongue in cheek” but that it would be intellectually honest to do so. Leding agreed.
“Why not hold ourselves to the same standards?” Leding said. “They’re saying this program could save the state as much as $40,000 … well, great. That’s the salary of one lawmaker.”