Virginia mulls drug-test requirement

Published 10:23 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2012

By Mechelle Hankerson

Capital News Service

If some state lawmakers have their way, Virginians seeking social service benefits may have to submit to mandatory drug tests before receiving public assistance.

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A House subcommittee has rolled several similar proposals into House Bill 73, which is sponsored by Delegate Dickie Bell, R-Staunton. It would allow local social services departments to conduct drug tests if they have “probable cause” before allowing an applicant to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Prospective clients who do not pass the mandated drug test would be ineligible for TANF benefits for a year.

The TANF program helps pay for family expenses, with the goal that families gradually become financially independent.

In Suffolk in November, five families with 15 individuals received a total of about $1,578 in TANF benefits, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services. Statewide, the program cost nearly $800,000, providing assistance to 7,448 individuals in 2,057 families.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 73, would require the government to pay for the drug tests. It also includes provisions for substance abuse treatment for aid recipients who fail the tests. Holly Coy, director of programs at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said the bills are an attempt to make sure government money isn’t wasted. But she fears the proposals defeat the purpose of social services programs.

“While (the bills) seem rather benign, the implications it has on Virginians is that in some cases, those individuals who are most in need of services are unable to get them,” Coy said.

Bell said he introduced the bill because of concerns voiced by his constituents in the Shenandoah Valley.

But Anita Harris, assistant director of Shenandoah Valley Social Services, said she doesn’t believe substance abuse is an issue for her department.

Harris said it’s possible participants are using drugs or other substances, but other requirements in the program would make it difficult to be eligible while having a serious substance abuse problem.

For example, participants must complete 30 job searches a week until they find regular employment to keep their TANF benefits, she said.

“If they have a substance abuse problem that keeps them from doing that, they’re going to be ineligible, anyway,” she said.

Harris’ bigger concern is what might happen to children whose parents are deemed ineligible for TANF.

“That’s the Catch-22,” Harris said. “They do the drug testing and they’re out of the program, but what happens to the children?”

Under the bill, money would be paid to a third party to ensure that children in the family would still be cared for.

Another bill before the House would require anyone seeking unemployment benefits to provide the results of a drug test from an accredited lab.

HB 148, sponsored by Delegate Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale, states, “Any individual who fails or refuses to provide the results of such a test or who tests positive for the use of a nonprescribed controlled substance shall be ineligible to receive benefits.”

Ransone’s bill has been assigned to the House Commerce and Labor Committee.