In the nearly three months since the state began drug testing low-income people applying for financial help from the state, four of the nearly 900 applicants tested positive, an official with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said.
A representative of the National Conference of State Legislatures told West Virginia lawmakers in 2015 that such programs in other states resulted in few positive tests. Lawmakers went on to pass the bill — Senate Bill 6 — during the next legislative session with overwhelming support.
Backers in the Legislature said the bill — requiring drug testing some applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — would get people into treatment. Opponents said it unfairly stereotypes poor people.
Officials with the DHHR said they estimated that the bill could flag 390 people in the first year, and that it would cost about $50,000 the first year.
This week, DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples told a group of lawmakers at a House of Delegates health committee meeting that four applicants (less than one-half of a percent) had tested positive, since the program began Oct. 23.
According to the DHHR, 873 parents applied from Oct. 23 to Jan. 5. Of those, 107 were directed to take the drug test, based on their answers to a questionnaire.
Courts have struck down drug-testing legislation not based on “reasonable suspicion.” West Virginia’s law determines reasonable suspicion through a questionnaire that asks questions about drug use like, “Do you abuse more than one drug at a time?” and “Do you ever feel bad or guilty about your drug use?”
Six people refused the test, according to the DHHR. Another four tested positive for drugs.
In an interview, Samples said he didn’t know if the people who failed the test were in treatment, although the DHHR makes referrals. He also didn’t know if 800 was a typical number of applicants over that time period, or whether fewer people had applied because of the drug testing requirement. He said that information would come later.
“I hope we’ve saved four people’s lives, to be honest with you,” he said.
Sen. Ryan Ferns, the lead sponsor of the bill and the current majority leader, said Friday he didn’t want to comment “out of context,” since he was not present for the health committee meeting. Ferns, R-Ohio, did not return a subsequent call after receiving the report from the DHHR via email.
Kim Miller, an addiction treatment specialist and spokeswoman for Prestera, heard the figure — four out of 873 — and responded, “We expected that.” Prestera helps people with substance abuse and/or other mental health conditions in Kanawha and several surrounding counties.
“Once again, the Legislature wants to punish people for having a medical condition,” she said. “The way to punish them is to take away those benefits. You’re further destabilizing a family that’s already at risk.”
Miller said drug tests for financial assistance from the state might provide “external motivation” to seek help. But people with substance abuse disorders also need recognition of a need to change, a desire to change and their own internal motivations — like wanting improved health or relationships, confidence in their ability to succeed and commitment to change, she said.
She said the program helps only the very needy; already has work/job training requirements, unless participants qualify for exemptions; and that the money received does not constitute a living wage. She pointed to welfare reform, instituted under President Bill Clinton.
Samples said during the committee meeting that the number of TANF recipients had steadily declined since the 1990s and that about 4,000 are currently on the program.
“It’s not really something that anybody wants to qualify for and receive,” Miller said. “If you’re on TANF, you’re desperate.”
Lawmakers said the drug testing bill was a pilot program when it passed in 2016. It remains in effect for three years and is expected to cost $22,000 each subsequent year.