2010 General Assembly

Kentucky lawmaker wants random drug testing for welfare recipients

Those who fail would lose food stamps, other benefits

jbrammer@herald-leader.comJanuary 17, 2011 

State Rep. Lonnie Napier, R-Lancaster

FRANKFORT — A state lawmaker wants random drug testing of adult Kentuckians who receive food stamps, Medicaid or other state assistance.

Those who fail the test would lose their benefits under House Bill 208, filed by Rep. Lonnie Napier, R-Lancaster.

Napier's proposal has won the backing of powerful House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, but critics say it would stigmatize welfare recipients and possibly harm their innocent children.

"I'm not a hard-hearted guy," said Napier. "I believe there is a need for public assistance for those who need it, but I understand some are using these funds to buy drugs."

Napier said the goal "is to get people off drugs."

"Most employers require it for their workers," he said of drug testing. "We need to do the same for those getting assistance through the state."

Napier said he would alter the bill when the legislature resumes Feb. 1 so it requires the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to set up mandatory, random testing of the blood or urine of any Kentuckian 18 or older who receives welfare benefits, food stamps or state medical assistance.

There would be exceptions for those who have a prescription for a controlled substance, he said.

Making the testing random would ensure the bill is constitutional, Napier said.

Under the proposal, adults on welfare who test positive for drugs would lose their assistance. They could get it back by passing a drug test at a later date determined by the state.

It's not certain how much the bill would cost the state, but Napier said there are more than 600,000 adult Kentuckians on welfare, and a drug test would cost about $30. If all recipients took a test, the cost would be at least $18 million.

But Napier said random testing could lower the overall cost of assistance programs because those abusing drugs wouldn't be eligible for help. He also said the state would save money "by getting more people off drugs."

"People are calling me from all over the state, telling me about people who are selling food stamps or other public assistance for drugs," Napier said.

Sheila Schuster, who works with organizations that advocate for disabled Kentuckians, said her concern with Napier's bill is "it fans the flames of people who misunderstand the plight of those who receive assistance and would put more negative connotation on them."

Schuster said she would like to know whether there are data that show a higher percentage of substance abuse among those who receive assistance compared to the general population.

Schuster, who advocates for offering substance abuse treatment to all Medicaid recipients, also said backers of the bill should spell out how to handle children of drug-tested welfare recipients.

Substance abuse treatment for Kentucky Medicaid recipients is limited now to children and pregnant women, she said.

Instead of harming children, Napier said, the proposal would help protect kids from parents who abuse drugs. "Who would want their children raised in an environment where money is being used for drugs instead of groceries?" he asked.

Napier did not know whether any other state has a policy similar to his proposal.

Though his bill has not been assigned to a committee for a hearing, Napier noted it is backed by Republicans and Democrats.

Thirteen House members have signed on as co-sponsors, including Stumbo, who was the state's attorney general from 2003 to 2007 and has served in the House for more than 26 years.

"As attorney general and as a legislator, I have done all I can to curb illegal drug use in the state," Stumbo said in a statement. "I view this issue in that light, and that's why I signed on as co-sponsor."

Napier filed a similar bill during last year's regular session without Stumbo's co-sponsorship, but it never got out of the House Health and Welfare Committee. The committee's chairman, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, could not be reached for comment.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said he would like to see the bill "create an early warning system to treat those on illegal drugs instead of punishing children whose parents lose assistance."

Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the state cabinet that would administer the drug-testing program, said the cabinet was "still reviewing the bill. We have no position on it at this time."

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