Drug testing poor a bad, expensive idea

Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin has two conflicting attributes: His intense need to appear decisive and firm, and his profound lack of knowledge about state, or any, government.

This was in evidence in the recent distracting dustup over his proposal to drug test Medicare recipients, or perhaps Medicaid recipients, or both, he said one thing and an aide later said the other.

For the record, Medicare is a federal health insurance program available to people over 65 who have paid into the program usually through payroll deductions and to some people with disabilities.

The Medicare tax money is put into a trust fund that in turn pays for the program. Medicaid is a health insurance program for people with low incomes that is paid from state and federal government tax revenues. Both make payments directly to the medical provider rather than to the patient.

So, Bevin's suggestion in April, reconfirmed in last week's debate with Democratic nominee Jack Conway, that Medicare recipients be randomly drug tested is more or less the equivalent of requiring random drug testing for people who withdraw money from their own bank accounts. Talk about Big Brother Government!

But, let's just say, as Bevin's spokeswoman later insisted, that he wasn't talking about Medicare, just the, literally, poor people on Medicaid.

This is not a new idea but it is a bad one, as well as being mean-spirited and punitive toward people who have not made the millions Bevin and his family enjoy.

In fairness to Bevin, the idea of drug testing people who receive some kind of public assistance, what he calls being "on the draw," is not unique. One of his opponents in the Republican primary, Hal Heiner, said he'd push for drug testing welfare recipients if elected.

In the last few years ,several states have passed laws that establish some kind of quid pro quo between receiving certain kinds of public assistance and drug testing. (No one ever suggests that CEOs of companies that receive tax credits, or developers who propose tax increment financing projects be drug tested. Go figure.)

Some of these laws have also run afoul of federal courts, which have found random, or "suspicionless," drug testing as a violation of the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable government searches.

As a practical matter, these programs have often found fewer drug users among the benefit receivers than in the general population, and have cost more money (drug tests aren't free) than they've saved.

When Indiana looked into the idea earlier this year the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration figured that if 5 percent of welfare recipients tested were found positive and so removed from the rolls the savings would amount to $213,000 but the net cost after that gain would be $2.3 million.

That's a high price to pay for punishing poor people.