Tenn. completes first year of welfare drug testing

Oct 6, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  It was a little over a year ago that the State of Tennessee began drug testing some welfare applicants, and the first year’s results are just as controversial as the bill’s passage.

Tennessee offers several types of welfare benefits, but the state only tests individuals applying to the Families First program, a benefit that aids needy families with small children.

Democratic State Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville voted against the bill and continues to oppose its implementation.

“The Republican Caucus looks at it as a way to keep people off drugs, but that is not what it does,” Jones said, “What it does is it keeps people from having enough money to feed their children.”

“And I would disagree with that,” said State Rep. and Republican Caucus Chair Glenn Casada of Franklin, ”because if a child is in a home where drugs are being abused, does Representative Jones still want to keep that child in that household? I would submit that that is an extremely unsafe environment and those children should be looked at.”

What isn’t in dispute is that of the 28,559 individuals making application for Tennessee’s Families First benefits in the program’s first year (July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015) 468 applicants were drug tested. A total of 55 individuals failed the test and so were denied benefits.

Of the 55 who failed a drug test, some agreed to begin drug treatment and eventually received the denied benefits. Other families had benefits granted through a different family member or guardian. The exact number of Tennesseans who never received requested benefits is hard to pinpoint but appears to number less than 30 families. *

The exact cost of the drug testing regime also remains elusive. When WMOT asked about the cost of planning, implementation and ongoing administration of the drug testing regime, the state was only able to cite a single expenditure. It says it paid an outside contractor about $11,000 to conduct the drug screenings.

Rep. Jones says that’s clearly not the only expense involved.

“It doesn’t include the cost of the staff to do the testing, to file the reports, to do any of the other paperwork, to notify these people. It doesn’t include any of that. So it’s costing the state money,” she said.

Rep. Casada believes the State Legislature’s Republican super majority is generally pleased with the first year result. He said it’s likely the General Assembly won’t consider any changes to the welfare drug testing bill for at least another year.

“We’re going to evaluate this at least one more full year; look at the results and just see, ‘Was it…does the body think it’s a good or a bad idea?” he said.

Rep Jones and her fellow Democrats already know what they think about the measure.

“You cannot take food from children. I don’t care what their reasoning is for people on drugs. It’s not about the grownups, it’s about the children.”

Tennessee’s welfare drug testing law requires that all testing results be held in confidence. The state can only refer a case to law enforcement if it suspects that a child may be in danger.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Changes were made to this story on 10/8/2015 at 4:40 p.m. The original language is copied below for comparison. The Tennessee welfare drug testing program completed its first year of operation July 1 of this year, but the Department of Human Services says a number of the original applicants are still involved in processes that could eventually result in benefits being granted. The Department also continues to work to find a way to grant benefits to every qualified child. For these reasons, pinpointing the exact number of individuals denied welfare benefits remains hard to determine. Mike Osborne, News Director, WMOT.

HERE IS THE STORY'S ORIGINAL LANGUAGE:

Of the 55 who failed a drug test, some agreed to begin drug treatment and eventually received the denied benefit. Other families had benefits granted through a different family member or guardian. The exact number of Tennesseans who never received requested benefits is hard to pinpoint but appears to number less than 30 families.