(Gannett News Service, Brandi Stafford / Cincinnati Enquirer)
By Mary Beth Schneider, The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana welfare recipients could face drug testing and loss of benefits if they fail to stick to treatment in a bill now headed to the Indiana Senate.
House Bill 1483, which passed the Indiana House 78-17 Monday, is part of a growing movement among states trying to ensure that those who receive tax dollars because they are poor don't spend them on illegal drugs.
Seven states have laws, passed in 2011 and 2012, requiring drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
"What we're trying to do is give somebody a hand up instead of a handout," said Rep. Jud McMillin, the Brookville, Ind., Republican who wrote the bill.
In his proposal, those who receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families would have to take a written test used nationally to screen people for potential drug use. Those whom the test shows to have a high propensity to abuse drugs would be part of a pool randomly required to take a drug test.
Those who pass the test would continue to receive benefits. Those who fail the first time would keep their benefits but would have to enter a treatment program at their own cost. McMillin said it could be anything from one at a church to in-patient treatment.
He said Medicaid and other government programs are available to help cover the cost of in-patient treatment.
Those in treatment who test clean on two consecutive drug tests would continue to receive benefits. If they are unable to stay off drugs for four months, he said they would lose benefits for three months. Then they could reapply and could, if a drug test showed they were no longer using narcotics, get benefits again.
"We are trying to recognize that people need help," McMillin said. But "you can only help those who help themselves, and there has to be a modicum of individual responsibility and accountability."
Other states' laws that ban welfare benefits for drug users range from laws that simply ask recipients whether they take drugs to laws that test people before they get benefits, McMillin said. This bill, he said, tries to balance helping the individual with protecting tax dollars.
Opponents of the bill questioned what would happen to the children of a parent who loses benefits - benefits that are often the difference between having or not having food, clothing and a place to sleep.
"What happens to the kids?" asked Democratic Rep. Cherrish Pryor of Indianapolis.
If the parents are using drugs, McMillin said the children are in a perilous spot anyway.
This would get the parents into treatment, and if the parents cannot stay clean and lose their benefits, the state's Department of Child Services would investigate the home and potentially remove the child, he said.
Rep. Charlie Brown, a Democrat from Gary, Ind., said the bill sends the message that state government automatically suspects anyone who needs welfare help also might be a drug user.
He had tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to make legislators, who also receive taxpayer dollars, submit to drug testing.
By testing only those getting welfare, Brown said, "We are selectively penalizing the least of our constituents."
Others questioned the cost. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that even with an estimated $1.5 million in reduced or withheld welfare benefits, the measure would cost Indiana more than $1.19 million.
Rep. Dan Forrestal, an Indianapolis Democrat, noted that Florida passed a law in 2011 that tested 4,086 people and found only 2.6%, costing the state more to conduct the tests than was saved by denying benefits.
McMillin said Indiana's program would be different from Florida's, with many of the costs one-time administrative costs to start the program.
"There are all kinds of intangible, incalculable benefits that we hope to be able to recognize," he said. "If the program is successful, it helps people who previously were dependent on their neighbors to help make ends meet to get themselves out of the situation and get them back to work."