Senate panel OKs welfare drug testing

A Senate health committee Monday approved a bill requiring drug testing for Georgia welfare applicants, after a similar provision for Medicaid enrollees was dropped from the legislation.

Senate Bill 292 passed 9-5, on a party-line vote. Democrats raised questions about the proposal’s constitutionality and its projected cost savings, and challenged the Senate Health and Human Services Committee’s parliamentary procedure prior to the final vote.

The Medicaid rule was dropped from the legislation before the hearing. Federal approval would have been necessary to put it into effect, and last week a state official testified that a federal agency had already denied permission for other states to require drug-testing of Medicaid enrollees.

Separately, a poll released Monday showed that two-thirds of Georgians ‘’strongly support’’ drug testing of Medicaid applicants. The poll, conducted earlier this month by the Schapiro Group, also found that a majority of Democrats support the requirement for Medicaid. The poll results were released by Healthcare Georgia Foundation.

State Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), the lead sponsor of the bill, said the proposal would save government money on welfare payments, because many applicants would fail the drug test, while others would decline to apply because of the drug-testing requirement.

Albers said the bill would create a level playing field, because some Georgians are already required by their employers to take drug tests. The goal, he said, ‘’is to get people clean . . . and make sure any tax dollars are going to the right purposes.’’

Democrats critical of the bill pointed out that a similar law in Florida has been placed on hold by a federal judge, who questioned whether it violates the Fourth Amendment.

Albers said he has consulted with the offices of the attorneys general in both Florida and Georgia, and with the Heritage Foundation, to create a bill that he believes will pass constitutional muster.

And he said Florida had saved $1.8 million in the first quarter when the welfare drug-testing law was in effect. A new financial analysis of the Georgia bill indicated the state would save money, too, he said.

Under the legislation, welfare applicants would be required to pay for their drug tests, but would be reimbursed if the results were negative.

Democratic Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta questioned one of the assumptions that the financial analysis made: that Medicaid would pay for the welfare applicants’ drug tests.

An official with the Department of Community Health, when asked about the payment issue, said Medicaid would probably not pay for the test – and that the state would have to get federal permission to do so.

The discussion of the bill turned contentious before the vote. Orrock, after raising a number of questions on the bill, sought to make a motion, but was denied the opportunity by committee Chairman Renee Unterman (R-Buford). Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson (D-Tucker) took strong exception to that ruling, calling Unterman’s action “outrageous.”

After the hearing, Orrock said that if the bill is ultimately approved, ”the state will surely be sued.’’

“This bill does not meet the smell test,’’ she said, citing the judge’s ruling in Florida. She said the legislation is a Republican effort to “bash poor people.’’

“It will do real damage to real people,’’ Orrock said.