Welfare drug testing bill advances despite attacks

A bill that would make Georgia welfare applicants take drug tests drew united opposition from consumer advocacy, social service and religious groups at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

The bill would stigmatize addicts and does not provide treatment options for anyone who tests positive for drugs, said Neil Kaltenecker of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Every treatment facility in the state has a waiting list, so very few of these people would receive care for their drug problems, said Kaltenecker, who testified to a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that she has been in recovery for more than 20 years.

Despite the opposition testimony, the panel passed Senate Bill 292 by a party-line 3-2 vote.

The bill is part of a Republican-backed wave of social issue legislation, on subjects ranging from food stamps to abortion and contraception, that has dominated the health care agenda in the General Assembly.

The lead sponsor of the drug testing bill, Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), told the lawmakers that the bill would level the playing field, putting welfare applicants on the same footing as people who must take drug tests for private employers. “The ultimate goal is to give people a hand up, not a handout,’’ Albers said. 

“True compassion is doing what’s best for people, not what’s easiest for people,’’ said Albers.

Proponents have said the bill 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.

But the savings argument was disputed by consumer advocates. Shelley Senterfitt, representing the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted that welfare funds are federal money, so no savings would go to the state general fund.

Senterfitt said there were serious constitutional questions on the drug testing bill. A similar law in Florida has been placed on hold by a federal judge, who questioned whether it violates the Fourth Amendment.

When a person fails a drug test, Senterfitt said, “it’s the kids who are going to suffer’’ when the person’s family is denied welfare benefits.

Representatives of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and the Georgia Catholic Conference also testified against the bill. Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the latter group, said the bill ‘’seems to be targeting a small percentage of the most vulnerable.’’

Ann Mintz of United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta said drug testing of welfare applicants would further strain the safety net of organizations helping the poor.

A similar drug-testing bill passed the House last week on Crossover Day. House Bill 861 goes a bit further than the Senate version, allowing random testing of people already on welfare as well as drug screening of applicants for the  benefits.

In other legislative news in health care Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services approved a proposal to make Vocational Rehabilitation a standalone agency attached to the Department of Human Services.