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January 21. 2013 9:50PM

Want welfare? Proposed law says take a drug test

CONCORD - A plan to require drug tests for people applying for temporary welfare assistance will be heard by a legislative committee today.

The bill, filed by state Reps. Donald LeBrun, R-Nashua, and Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, would require applicants for federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit a clean drug test to receive benefits.

The program is administered by the state, which may issue an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card for the benefit. The Department of Health and Human Services would determine what drugs the test would screen for.

"I'm not trying to take anything away from anyone who qualifies," LeBrun said. "I'm trying to identify people who have problems and have them treated."

Under his proposal, applicants would first be sent for testing. They would have to pay for it, with the cost refunded in the first benefit allotment if they pass.

LeBrun calls the measure "a common sense" approach to the issue of what happens to benefits given to families headed by a drug user.

"If a person has a drug problem and we simply write them a check, what are they going to do?" LeBrun said. "They will go out and buy drugs."

Stephanie Savard, vice president of Families in Transition, the social service agency that helps families that become homeless, said she worries that such a law could turn out to be punitive and lead to families ending up in more serious situations than they are now.

"It's a slippery slope; there are pros and cons to the concept," Savard said. "Is it another tool in the tool box to support a family and help them raise the ship and build toward self-sufficiency, or is it being use to be punitive?"

LeBrun said the version of the measure he filed seeks to avoid a punitive approach. If an applicant is denied benefits due to a positive drug tests, the entire family would not necessarily be kicked off TANF rolls.

Another responsible adult could be designated to receive the benefits after passing a drug test.

An applicant testing positive would be disqualified from benefits for a year, but could win reinstatement by providing proof of successful completion of a substance abuse program.

"It will identify people and put them in the proper program to get treatment, rectifying the problem in a two-fold nature," LeBrun said. "It is giving people who need help all the help they need, plus getting help for the person with a drug problem."

Savard cautions that drug abuse should be treated like other health issues.

"Addition is a chronic health condition; we are not punitive with someone who has other medical issues. We don't take benefits away when someone has emphysema from smoking," she said. "Addiction is a disease that needs support and health care."

Attempts to require drug testing for TANF applicants in two other states, Florida and Michigan, have been struck down by federal district courts.

No definitive federal Court of Appeals ruling has been handed down in either case. In Michigan, a three-judge panel initially said the testing could continue, but the case was heard again by all 10 judges, who proceeded to deadlock on the issue. That meant a lower court ruling banning the testing stands.

In Florida, an appeals court heard arguments Nov. 1 on a bid to bar the testing, but has yet to issue a decision.

The Florida law was challenged on the grounds that drug tests were an illegal search because results are made available to law enforcement. That may not be an issue under the New Hampshire proposal; Lebrun's bill specifically prohibits state officials from turning results over to other agencies.

The state Department of Health and Human Services estimates that, if the bill passes, drug tests will have to be given to about 2,600 applicants each year. Based on studies done elsewhere, it estimates that between 2.4 percent and 8.8 percent of people receiving benefits will fail the test, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.

LeBrun denies that the aim is to deny assistance to people who need it.

"I'm going to present the bill as a common-sense housekeeping or stewardship kind of thing," he said. "I hope to convince people that there is a problem and we have to do something about it."

wsmith@unionleader.com


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