Michigan welfare drug screening program nets zero hits
Lansing — Michigan did not catch a single welfare recipient using illegal drugs during a one-year pilot program designed to screen and test suspected substance abusers, provide them with treatment or kick them off government cash assistance if they refused.
In a Tuesday report to legislators, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it conducted suspicion-based screenings for 14 of 443 Family Independence Program applicants or recipients between October 2015 and Sept. 30, 2016 in Allegan, Clinton and Marquette counties.
Only one of those individuals “was found by a clinician to have a reasonable suspicion of use of a controlled substance and required a substance use (drug) test,” according to the department.
However, that person dropped off the welfare rolls “for an unrelated reason” before the individual took a drug test.
All told, the state health department said it spent $700 for county clinicians to screen 14 welfare clients using an “empirically validated substance abuse screening tool.” Each drug test would have cost $75, but no welfare recipients actually took a test.
The Legislature appropriated $300,000 for the pilot program. While the department likely incurred some administrative costs on top of the screenings, spokesman Bob Wheaton said most of the funding will be returned to the state coffers for other uses.
“Our main goal was to help people who were receiving cash assistance to continue on a path toward self-sufficiency and reduce any barriers to employment, such as substance use issues,” Wheaton said.
State legislators will determine whether the pilot program helped the state achieve those goals, and whether it should continue, expand statewide or be modified in some other fashion.
The pilot program, approved by the Republican-led Legislature in late 2014, was intentionally limited in scope to avoid legal challenges. A 1999 Michigan law to randomly test welfare recipients for drug use was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2000.
The new law called for “suspicion-based” screening rather than random testing.
At the time of approval, sponsoring Sen. Joe Hune said the law would ensure that “only the neediest and law-abiding citizens” receive taxpayer-funded assistance, but he is blaming lackluster results from the pilot program on poor implementation by the state health department.
“This was supposed to be suspicion-based drug testing,” said Hune, R-Hamburg. “Instead, the uncooperative bureaucrats at the health department simply had the welfare recipients fill out a questionnaire — are you on drugs, yes or no? — and that’s how you get a result like that.”
Rana Elmir of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan called the pilot program an “utter failure” and said welfare drug testing efforts are “a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about poor people.”
Her group sued Michigan over the 1999 law. The case was settled, she said, when Michigan agreed to conduct drug tests only when there was a reasonable suspicion of use. The state voluntarily ended that program because it “proved to be unproductive and expensive.”
“It was foolish for the state to do the same thing 15 years later, yet expect different results,” Elmir said. “We call on DHHS to scrap this ineffective program immediately.”
The pilot program was limited to three counties, where 443 applicants were involved because they either filed an application for cash assistance or had their case reviewed for continuation.
County clinicians referred 27 of the recipients for screening, but 10 were already participating in a substance abuse treatment program. Three of the other 17 had their cases closed for unrelated reasons or because they did not continue contact with the Community Mental Health system.
The fact that some welfare clients flagged for screenings were already participating in drug treatment programs “kind of validated” the effort, Wheaton said, while others may have benefited simply from having conversations with health clinicians.
The state health department “doesn’t necessarily have a recommendation on whether the program should continue, Wheaton said. “At this point, we would wait for any legislative response as far as what they want to do from here.”
Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica, who sponsored one of the pilot program bills, said he had initially envisioned a more robust welfare drug-testing program.
“I worked on it for three years, and by the time we got through the process, the (Snyder) administration and others had watered it down so much that it wasn’t all that useful,” he said.
Farrington will be term limited out of the office at the end of the year. But if he were still around next session, he said revisiting welfare drug testing would be “a very low priority for me.”