A controversial study to determine how the state could remove drug abusers from public assistance payments like welfare or food stamps ordered by Idaho lawmakers during the 2010 legislative session is still on hold as officials with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) continue to consolidate offices and contemplate solutions to funding shortfalls.
Since the close of the Legislature in early April, DHW has had to close nine field offices across the state and lay off more than 120 workers. The agency has also had to focus on cutting $247 million out of its Medicaid budget due to funding shortfalls. To find ideas of where it can cut, DHW launched a website for citizens and providers alike to submit suggestions.
DHW spokesman Tom Shanahan told IdahoReporter.com on April 12 that department officials were too busy making changes to the agency to begin determining parameters for the study. On Tuesday, Shanahan said in an e-mail message that officials are still busy with the department's regular work, but would likely begin the study in the next few weeks. He said that personnel within the department have started to discuss options on how to conduct the study, but no final decisions have been made.
The department has until the 2011 Idaho Legislature convenes in January of 2011 to do the study. At that time, department officials must report their findings to lawmakers. Though no final study goals have been set, it is anticipated that DHW will study the cost and legality of random drug testing for those on public assistance payments.
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 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.