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Welfare Recipients Can Be Drug Tested Under Senate-Approved Bill

Martin Valent
West Virginia Legislative Photography
The West Virginia Senate

West Virginia Senators voted 32 to 2 to create a three-year pilot program to drug test welfare recipients. Two Democratic senators voted against the provision. 

The bill requires the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources seek federal approval to create such a program and sets forth the requirements for it, including the "reasonable suspicion" a DHHR employee must find before testing a TANF recipient. 

The TANF program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is a short-term welfare program meant to help struggling  families. According to the DHHR, about 3,536 West Virginians received TANF benefits in December 2015.

If the bill is approved by the House of Delegates, any of those recipients could be asked to take a drug test if they have been convicted of a drug crime in the past five years or "give the impression" they may be on drugs, according to Sen. Ryan Ferns of Ohio County, the bill's lead sponsor. 

The program will then run on a three strike system. 

After one failed drug test, recipients must enroll in rehabilitation and workforce training programs, but get to keep their benefits. They lose those benefits after a second failed test, but after 12 months or completing a rehabilitation or job training program, whichever is shorter, they’ll get their benefits back. It’s after the third failed test, Ferns said, the recipient loses those benefits for life.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler was one of two Democrats to vote against the bill, he said, for two reasons. The first, the bill requires the welfare recipient to pay for the state required drug rehabilitation on their own and second, Kessler said there are a lack of those programs in the state. 

“So, we’re forcing folks into programs that we’re not even sure they exist, number one, and if they do, we’re asking people to pay for it that desperately need treatment that don’t have the funds to pay for it," he said. 

Ferns assured Kessler on the floor the DHHR believes there are enough programs to handle the number of recipients expected to need treatment, and said many of those TANF recipients also receive Medicaid, which covers substance abuse treatment. 

The program is expected to cost the DHHR about $50,000 to implement and $22,000 each year thereafter. 

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.

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