DHW study says welfare recipient drug testing would cost state more money than it’s worth
Last year, the Idaho Legislature approved a resolution ordering the Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) to undertake a study of how to test welfare recipients for illegal drugs as a way to save money on social program spending.
The report is out and lawmakers may be surprised to see that drug testing may not save as much money as they had originally hoped.
In fact, screening would actually cost the state more money than it would save by paying out less in program benefits. Because Idaho only pays some of the costs of the programs, any savings achieved via testing would be shared by the Gem State and the federal government. The problem with that is Idaho would be required to pay for all testing and could not use money saved by paying out fewer benefits to fund screenings. That means that while Idaho would save money from having fewer people in programs eligible for testing, it would lose more money by instituting testing.
The document lays out two different scenarios through which the state could drug test some welfare recipients. In both cases, estimated savings to all governmental entities is considerably less than $100,000 in welfare benefit payments annually, though Idaho would likely need to use general fund dollars to pay for testing.
The main obstacle in testing all recipients of welfare programs, the department says, are federal regulations prohibiting the practice. Federal rules are in place to prohibit drug testing in some of the Gem State's largest social programs, including Medicaid and food stamps. Medicaid comprises a large portion of the state’s budget, though Idaho only pays one-fourth of the program’s total cost.
If Idaho chooses to institute drug testing for programs only two would qualify: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Idaho (TAFI), a cash-assistance program for families making less than 32 percent of federal poverty levels, and Idaho Child Care Assistance Program (ICCP), which provides childcare subsidies to families. TAFI applicants are already given initial drug screenings.
Both programs see some state money, but receive the majority of funding from the federal government.
According to estimates, testing is pricy. Under one scenario in which the state conducts tests on all program applicants, Idaho could fork out as much as $1.16 million for screening, including $920,000 in substance abuse treatment costs. This plan would save the state about $67,905 annually.
In the other scenario where the state gives the survey and only further test those who merit it, it would likely cost Idaho about $243,000, though only $119,000 of that would go to treatment. This method would save the state $8,814.
DHW also gives estimates in which private contractors handle all testing duties and total costs are similar to what it would cost for state employees to carry out the tasks.
The department says it is possible lawmakers could implement a system in which program applicants would have to pay for their own drug screenings, though the report says a provision of that nature could spark a costly legal challenge. DHW says that courts have ruled against forcing low-income citizens to pay for their own screenings.
DHW warns that drug testing comes with risks. The department cautions that some parents might not apply for state aid if a drug screen in involved, thereby denying their children food or basic necessities. The department also says that if testing is implemented in ICCP, it could mean that parents simply avoid obtaining employment because they would fail to qualify for the child care subsidy.
Additionally, the report notes, the state could incur legal fees over testing schemes. The state of Michigan, for example, was involved in a pricy lawsuit after it passed a plan implementing random testing.
Lawmakers received copies of the report Monday and will discuss them in open hearing in upcoming meetings.