State drug-testing bill would break new ground

Georgia could become the first state to require drug testing of Medicaid applicants, if a Senate bill becomes law.

That’s according to a Department of Community Health official, who was asked by a state senator at a legislative hearing Monday whether other states have such a requirement.

Senate Bill 292, sponsored by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), also would require drug tests for welfare applicants.

Claudette Bazile, the Community Health official, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that a federal agency has not approved any state for such a mandate. She said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) denied requests by Alaska and Idaho to drug-test Medicaid applicants.

A major change to a state’s Medicaid program must be approved by CMS.

Albers defended his proposal before the state Senate panel, saying it would create “a level playing field’’ for Georgians, because applicants for some private-sector jobs are required to take drug tests.

A central goal of the legislation is to ensure that government funds are used “for the intended purpose of alleviating the effects of poverty and are not diverted to illicit drug use.’’

“We have to challenge the status quo,’’ Albers said Monday. ”True compassion is what’s best for people, not what’s easiest.’’

He said the legislation would save the state money.

Yet a financial analysis of the bill by the Department of Audits and Accounts, dated Jan. 18, projected the cost of drug testing at $3.8 million to $31.5 million annually.

But Albers has asked for a new analysis of the cost, calling the previous ‘’fiscal note’’ inaccurate. The method of drug testing would be a cotton swab, which at $13 to $17, is much cheaper than a blood test, Albers said.

Applicants would be responsible for the cost of the test, but would be reimbursed later if the results were negative.

The Senate panel also heard testimony on a Senate bill that would create a pilot program requiring Georgia food stamp applicants to ”engage in personal growth activities,’’ which would include education.

The panel did not vote on either bill Monday.

Consumer advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers argued against the drug-testing bill at the hearing, saying it would harm families and would face challenges to its constitutionality.

They pointed out that a federal judge has temporarily blocked Florida’s new law requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. The ruling said the law may violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Albers said he has worked with the offices of the attorneys general in Florida and Georgia and with the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank, to create a bill that he believes would pass constitutional muster.

Neil Kaltenecker of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse said the drug testing bill “creates a large barrier’’ to drug treatment and would further stigmatize people with addiction problems. “Drug screening does not prevent substance abuse, especially [in] people with addiction,’’ she said.

Dante McKay of Voices for Georgia’s Children said the bill would weaken the state’s safety net, discourage families from seeking benefits and ultimately harm children.

“For the poor, we must provide services instead of obstruction,’’ declared Pamela Perkins Carn of the Interfaith Children’s Movement.

And Ann Mintz of the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta testified that the state lacks the capacity to help people find treatment, saying the organization’s help line is swamped by people seeking services.

The bill would allow exemptions for people in nursing homes, dependent children and people who have a physical or mental handicap or developmental disability.

Ellyn Jeager of Mental Health America of Georgia testified that the legislation does not address the problem of people who have both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. She also questioned who would make a determination that an applicant has a mental illness.

The bill on food stamps also drew questions from legislators.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 312, Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), said the legislation’s “personal growth” requirement aims to help motivate food stamp recipients to become self-sufficient.

He said 1.8 million Georgian receive food stamps, including 1 million adults, many of whom do not have high school diplomas. Ligon said federal funds are available to help defray the costs of services such as child care and transportation.

But Sen. Steve Henson (D-Tucker) had a question: If federal funding is available for 50 percent of that cost, who would pay the rest of the education expenses for the recipient?

Ligon replied that some states use nonprofits to fill in that gap, and others pay for it themselves.

The food stamp bill would exempt people who are under 16 or over 59, those with developmental disabilities and those deemed ”mentally unfit.’’

Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) noted that a significant number of food stamp recipients are already employed. She claimed the bill is ”part of a growing trend to demonize poor people.’’

Ligon said getting a diploma helps poor people because ‘’more opportunities open up to them to get a higher-paying job.’’

Department of Human Services officials testified that department employees who handle food stamp applications already have overwhelming caseloads of more than 700 per worker.

Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association, warned that if new barriers are placed on food stamps, the state’s food banks will be swamped.

Already, food banks are ‘’being crushed by demand for food,’’ she said. “We’ll have many more people go hungry.”