Senator suggests drug testing for welfare recipients

Hank Hayes • Feb 28, 2007 at 8:36 AM

A Tennessee Senate committee considered legislation Wednesday to require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to test people for substance abuse as a condition for them receiving public assistance if the testing program isn't prohibited by the federal government.

"I realize there is some friction about it," state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, said of his drug testing bill while addressing the Senate General Welfare/Health and Human Resources Committee.

Officials with TennCare, the state's multibillion-dollar federally supported Medicaid program for more than 1 million Tennesseans, told Burchett that federal regulations prohibit substance abuse testing as a condition of public assistance eligibility.

DHS also said federal law prohibits the state from "imposing other standards of eligibility" to participate in the Food Stamp program.

TennCare's and DHS' interpretation of the bill's lack of federal viability turned up in the legislation's fiscal review - which usually tells lawmakers how much the bill would cost.

"I didn't know fiscal review was responsible for making legal decisions," Burchett told the committee. "The reality is we already do drug testing for folks who receive aid. ... Our (college) athletes in our schools are tested, and if they test positive for marijuana or cocaine or anything like that, they are kicked off the team or lose their scholarship - unless of course they are a blue-chip player then they have a special study on it and then hopefully it goes away. ... I'd like to make an example of them, but that seems to be the way it works."

A 2006 Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured report noted that "basing eligibility for publicly sponsored health coverage on low income, without categorical restrictions, could substantially reduce the number of uninsured Americans and assure coverage for those least able to pay."

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rosalind Kurita, D-Clarksville, suggested Burchett's bill might contain unwanted negatives - like eliminating children from coverage.

"What do we do with those children?" she asked. "I don't think we throw everything out. ... Our goal should be to get people off drugs. ... Everyone is frustrated when you see programs that don't really help somebody. Tightening up the system is good, but I think we will just simply see a link between being on drugs and being on welfare."

Burchett said law enforcement officials tell him that people are using public assistance funds to buy drugs.

"If we tested these folks and we knew that, we could possibly get them into some sort of program that maybe we could do something about it," Burchett said.

The Office of Inspector General, an agency separate from TennCare, is currently involved in arresting TennCare recipients for fraudulently using benefits to buy prescriptions illegally.

Burchett's bill was reset to be considered in a future committee meeting.

For more about the bill go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bill's number is SB 0102.

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