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Dept. of Health and Welfare: controversial drug testing study will have to wait

Dept. of Health and Welfare: controversial drug testing study will have to wait

Dustin Hurst
April 12, 2010
Dustin Hurst
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April 12, 2010

A controversial study commissioned by the Idaho Legislature into how the state can get drug abusers off public assistance payments, like Medicaid and food stamps, will have to wait because staffers at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) are busy doing other things - closing down offices and laying off employees to save money.  The study was the brainchild of Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenn Ferry.

DHW spokesman Tom Shanahan, in an e-mail to IdahoReporter.com, said that due to office closures and layoffs, those in charge of the research "have not had the opportunity to sit down and really strategize on how to conduct the study."  He added that staffers and administrators will be too busy  in the next month to begin the work required, but should be able to start in 7-8 weeks.  The department is required by statute to have the work completed by the beginning of the 2011 legislative session.

While pitching the plan during the 2010 legislative session, Wills  told lawmakers a study on how to remove drug addicts from public assistance payments is “about 30-35 years too late” and that the state needs to look ahead at ways to save money by withholding payments to those who choose to abuse the system.

Though supportive of drug testing for a public assistance recipient, Wills is concerned with how much a program doing that could cost the state.  Though he believes the state could save “a huge amount of money” by removing addicts from public assistance payments, he would like the department to study how to create a program which is ultimately “self-supporting.”  Wills added that one possible solution to pay for the program is to institute the testing and use some of the money saved by not having drug addicts on public assistance.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, authorizes, but does not require, states to use drug testing as a screening method for welfare recipients.  The group feels, however, that screening citizens with drug tests is too costly, ineffective, and likely unconstitutional.  On its website, the ACLU says there is evidence that a questionnaire could be more effective in catching drug abusers than random drug testing.

During the floor hearing on the plan, Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, said that she believes the study is a waste of time and will only burden a department already reeling from massive budget cuts.

DHW director Richard Armstrong, in a previous interview with IdahoReporter.com, said that the agency is already having trouble dealing with its assigned duties.

“We are struggling to keep up with the workload that is at our door today,” said Armstrong.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, warned lawmakers against using results of the study as a means to simply remove people from public assistance payments because, as he said, children of abusers would likely take removal of public money the hardest.

Wills told lawmakers his plan is something they would be forced into doing, like it or not.

"We have to go down this road sometime,” said Wills.

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