The governor’s office is planning to roll-out statewide drug screenings for Arkansans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Governor Asa Hutchinson’s office confirmed the decision on Wednesday to skip a pilot program envisioned in a law passed last year and move to statewide implementation.
The 2015 legislation by State Senator Blake Johnson (R-Corning) also contained provisions allowing for the pilot program to be expanded to the state level at any time.
Spokesperson J.R. Davis said it’s a matter of personal responsibility and preventing an abuse of benefits.
“We’re talking about program integrity. If you’re using drugs then you’re taking advantage of this program and that’s something that we should address,” said Davis.
However, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families policy analyst Ellie Wheeler said similar attempts elsewhere haven’t panned out.
“What we’ve seen in other states that it just doesn’t end up working out very well for anyone. It actually has potential to cost the state a lot of money,” said Wheeler.
An implementation plan from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (published by the Arkansas Times) estimates the cost of the drug screening program could total $1.7 million. The original, never embarked upon pilot program would have focused on a few counties bordering other states.
“The bottom line is it’s really ineffective at both finding and treating people with drug abuse problems,” said Wheeler. “For example, in Florida only about 2.5 percent of applicants ended up testing positive. In Tennessee that number was less than one percent, only about 55 out of almost 30,000 applicants tested positive.
The potential that only a small number of Arkansas’s 3,000 TANF recipients might test positive isn’t a reason to be hesitant about the program for the governor’s office.
“It’s not punitive, this is about treatment as well,” said the Republican governor’s spokesperson. “Say it is one percent or two percent or whatever the number is, these are individuals that have a drug problem that need some type of help, some type of treatment and if they’re able to do that then that’s a successful aspect of this initiative.”
Davis said an actual drug test will only be administered if a person seeking the benefit answers positively to two drug-use screening questions on an application. If a potential recipient answers affirmatively for drug use it doesn’t lead to an automatic cut-off of benefits. Davis said Arkansans seeking assistance are then directed to take a drug test and given a chance to follow through with treatment options.
Failing to break addiction within the drug treatment and recovery protocol set out by the state could lead to being disqualified from accessing the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program for six months to a year, though support for those under 16 would continue to flow through a “protective payee.”
Governor Hutchinson served as director for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush.