COLUMBUS, Ohio – Welfare applicants in Ohio would be screened and tested for illegal drugs under a bill introduced Wednesday in the state legislature.
The proposal would create a two-year pilot program in three counties that have yet to be determined.
Adults applying for cash assistance would complete a screening or questionnaire. If that shows they likely abuse drugs, they would need to take a drug test. They would not receive the benefit if they test positive. But the bill allows a third party, a so-called "protective payee," to get the payment on behalf of the person's children and dependents.
At least 13 states have passed drug-testing or -screening legislation for people receiving or applying for public assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In June, Michigan's governor signed a state budget that included $300,000 to implement a pilot program in three counties to give drug tests to welfare recipients suspected of substance abuse.
The sponsors of Ohio's bill told reporters Tuesday that the legislation ensures that taxpayer money isn't supporting drug habits.
"Right now, if someone is addicted to drugs, they may be getting the money," said Rep. Ron Maag, a Lebanon Republican. "They might be giving it to the drug dealer and their family is still suffering. This is to take care of the families and to get help for the person who is addicted to drugs."
Those who test positive for drugs would be connected to treatment options, the sponsors say.
Most recipients of Ohio's cash benefit program are children. As of May, those on Ohio Works First included 94,240 children and 15,356 adults. The program provides benefits for up to 36 months. In 2015, a payment for a family of three is $473 each month.
"There's nothing that's going to stop getting the benefits to the children and to the families that need it," Republican Rep. Tim Schaffer of Lancaster said of his bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio opposed the proposal. Among other issues, the group said it unfairly targets a group of people who receive public benefits.
"The overall conversation of placing the blame on people with public assistance is not the solution to Ohio's struggle with addiction," said Lisa Wurm, a policy manager for ACLU of Ohio.
The bill's sponsors could not estimate a specific cost for creating the drug-testing program or its potential savings. But Schaffer described it as "affordable" and believed the state would save some money. He pointed to Utah, where officials in 2013 reported that its program requiring drug screening for welfare applicants saved more than $350,000 in its first year. Supporters there had said the state saved when drug testing appeared to discourage several hundred people from following through and getting their benefits.
Utah's initial figures also showed it spent more than $30,000 to screen welfare applicants and 12 of more than 4,700 applicants tested positive.
Schaffer said Ohio could save money when applicants don't go forward with a drug test to get the benefit. But he also said the state would save in the long-run from getting people treated for dependencies.
Ohio's proposal would refer drug users to drug treatment and set aside $100,000 annually for it. The state also would pay for drug tests that come back negative, Schaffer said. But those who fail the tests would cover the expense, which he said was about $35 for urine tests.
Other aspects of the proposal are not yet known, such as the specific form of screening and drug test, the qualifications of the protective payee and how the three counties would put the program in place. Schaffer said the state's Department of Job and Family Services would help set the policy and write the rules.
Other versions of the measure have been pitched but never got traction in Ohio. State lawmakers are currently on summer break until September.