An official with Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) confirmed Tuesday that the department has started work on a controversial drug abuser study commissioned earlier in the year by state lawmakers. The study, the official confirmed, will likely be completed well before the start of the 2011 legislative session, the date by which lawmakers ordered the study be concluded.
Tom Shanhan, spokesman for DHW, said that his agency, despite weeks of delay due to administrators working on the closure of nine department field offices, has started the study. Shanhan explained to IdahoReporter.com that the study will be completed according to the text of House Concurrent Resolution 55, the piece of legislation that orders the study. Officials with the department, Shanahan said, will evaluate if there would be any benefit to the state through removing reoccurring drug offenders from public assistance payments like Medicaid or food stamps. "From our perspective, it is a feasibility study to report on what the options are for testing, the scope and impacts of testing, what the implementation process would entail, and then a cost-savings analysis," Shanahan said.
While pitching the plan during the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, 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 public assistance recipients, Wills is concerned with how much a testing program could cost the state. And 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.
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.