KHI News Service

Drug screening bill signed into law

Those seeking or receiving unemployment or welfare benefits could face drug checks

By Mike Shields | April 16, 2013

A bill authorizing state officials to order drug tests of people receiving or applying for unemployment or some welfare benefits was signed into law today by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Senate Bill 149, which passed the House and Senate by large majorities, would allow officials to order the screening if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that an applicant or recipient of the benefits is using a "controlled substance." Commonly used recreational drugs such as marijuana would fall in that category, but not alcohol.

Those who test positive would be required to complete job training and substance abuse programs. Failure to complete the programs would make the person ineligible for benefits. Those who refuse to be tested also would be ineligible.

Currently, about 23,000 people are collecting Kansas unemployment benefits through the Kansas Department of Labor. About another 23,000 people are receiving so-called "cash assistance" through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is federally funded but administered here by the Kansas Department of Children and Families.

"Drug addiction is a scourge in Kansas," the governor said at the bill signing ceremony. "It's a horrific thing that hits so many people. What this effort is about is an attempt to get ahead of it — instead of ignoring the problem, start treating the problem."

Brownback and other officials said details of how the law would be implemented won't be known until rules and regulations for it have been approved. The new policy is scheduled to be in place no later than Jan. 1, 2014.

Following a trend

Kansas is following a recent trend.

Missouri officials passed a similar measure in 2011. That year, more than three dozen states considered new drug screening laws tied to public benefits and three states passed them, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Sen. Jeff King, the Independence Republican who was SB 149's chief sponsor, said the Kansas law would be a bit different than those elsewhere because of its emphasis on treatment and job training.

"This is the most treatment-friendly drug testing bill in the country," King said, flanking the governor at the Statehouse press conference.

A bill that called for random testing of welfare beneficiaries was considered by the 2010 Kansas Legislature but did not pass. It was promoted by Rep. Kasha Kelley, an Arkansas City Republican.

Laws that call for random or so-called "suspicionless" testing are ripe for court challenges, according to civil liberties experts. In February, a federal appeals court upheld a Florida judge's halt to that state's 2011 law on grounds it was discriminatory and unconstitutional.

When the new Kansas law was being considered by the Legislature, spokespersons for the Kansas Association of Addiction Professionals and the Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers said it had shortcomings but stopped short of opposing it.

They said, among other things, that the bill failed to account for alcohol abuse — the state's chief addiction woe — and the lack of funding for substance abuse treatment and mental health programs.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore acknowledged at the bill signing that the state may not yet have "infrastructure" to deal with the number of people that might need treatment or job training as a result of failed drug tests. But she also said it was too soon to know how many drug users the new law might net.

The agency based its cost projections for the program (about $1 million for fiscal 2014, including four full-time positions at regional DCF offices) on the assumption that 450 people would fail out of 5,300 screenings.

King predicted about 8.5 percent of applicants or beneficiaries would be found out, which would closely match federal estimates of the rate of illicit drug use among the general population, but said he hoped the law would lead to a reduction in the number of Kansas drug abusers.

He also said that when he worked on the bill he envisioned DCF using a "prescreening tool" to determine if there was a "reasonable suspicion" of drug abuse.

But officials said those kind of implementation details were yet to be worked out.

'Watching very closely'

Holly Weatherford, program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, said the organization closely watched the rules and regulations process for the Missouri law and plans to do the same for the new Kansas statute.

"We believe the devil is in the details," Weatherford said, "and we'll be watching very closely the rules-and-regs process in Kansas...and what sort of mandates will be put in place in terms of privacy protections and other civil liberties matters. Generally, we believe applicants for public assistance don't use drugs at a higher percentage than the general public."

Weatherford said after Arizona enacted its screening law only 16 people were referred and only one person was declared temporarily ineligible for benefits. She predicted the rate of positive tests would be low and that the program likely would end up "costing the state considerably more to implement than it would ever save."

Job training

Brian Inbody, president of Neosho County Community College, also took part in today's bill signing ceremony.

He described a job training program started by the college in partnership with local businesses in southeast Kansas that were "frustrated by the inability to hire people" because the prospective employees lacked job skills or the proper "attitude toward the workplace."

He said since its launch more than 300 people had been through the program — Partners in Change — and that 72 percent of the people who completed it had been able to keep a job more than a year.

"They went from unemployable, being a tax consumer to a tax payer. It's been a wonderful thing to see. Breaking the cycle of poverty is what we're trying to do," Inbody said. "It's a very cost-effective program. We do it for about $750 per participant."

Inbody said Partners in Change already works with department of corrections officials and others in southeast Kansas to get referrals for the program and that it could be "one of the options for the workforce training portion" of the drug screening program.

Inbody said Neosho County Community College could train staff at other community colleges around the state to launch similar programs that could quickly train people considered "unemployable" with skills needed in the workforce.

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