Va. GOP revives drug testing for welfare recipients

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Virginia Republicans are reviving plans to force welfare recipients to take drug tests before receiving benefits, saying they have found ways to reduce the price tag that doomed the proposal earlier.

"We got hung up last year on the cost, and it seems that we determined the costs aren't as great as we were told last year," said Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, the bill's sponsor. "There are new methods of screening and testing used other places, and some are practical and could be applied here."

Bell hasn't introduced drug test legislation yet for the 2013 General Assembly session. The bill he introduced in the last session would have screened all state welfare recipients and then administered drug tests to those suspected of drug use.

The legislation failed, however, after the state estimated it would cost $1.5 million to administer the tests, compared with the estimated $229,000 that would be saved by stripping benefits from those who test positive.

The state Department of Social Services, which surveyed 120 local social services offices this fall about ways to apply the drug tests, recommended to a House subcommittee that the state use a quicker testing option and private contractors to save money.

One in five of Virginia's local social services offices already administer drug tests to welfare recipients to determine whether there are any barriers to employment, though testing positive does not result in the loss of benefits.

Republicans believe a statewide testing system is necessary to prevent taxpayer money from going to drug users.

"You're going to have some abuse no matter what you do, but you can curtail it to where it's minimal," said Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell.

Most studies have found that drug use among welfare recipients is slightly higher than in the general population, according to the Department of Social Services.

Virginia Democrats oppose the drug testing, saying it stigmatizes people who are in need of assistance.

"It's insulting, it's degrading to the individuals and it's a waste of money," said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Franconia.

Other states have for years been testing welfare recipients for drugs. Arizona started in 2009. Missouri and Florida passed similar laws in 2011. Before Florida's law was suspended by the courts, officials found that only 2 percent of welfare recipients tested positive for drugs.

"Why are we legislating on a problem that might not be that big?" asked Catherine Pemberton, vice president for the Virginia League of Social Services Executives. "We're not a 'got you' kind of business. People come to us because they're in need. They're vulnerable."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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