By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner is proposing a bill that would allow for drug testing of people receiving financial assistance through a state program for low-income families.
If a test comes back positive for an illegal substance, a person in the state’s Reach Up program could continue to receive state assistance provided they take part in drug treatment, according to Turner, R-Milton, the bill’s sponsor.
“If we’re going to make a serious attempt at helping people with addictions, this is another way to reach out to them,” Turner said Tuesday, Feb. 6.
The bill, H.866, has been referred to the House Human Services Committee. Turner said he didn’t believe that the measure would ultimately pass the Democratic controlled Legislature, but thought it was important to raise the issue.
James Duff Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vt., said the proposal was retrograde.
“This is essentially a blast from the past, one from a different era and one most of the country is ready to move on from,” Lyall said. “So much effort is moving in the opposite direction, toward providing treatment instead of punishment, and away from punishing people who can least afford it. It strikes us as a misguided effort.”
Similar measures have been proposed by House Republican members in past legislative sessions, but lacked the support needed to move forward.
Responding to a common criticism of the proposal, Turner said he didn’t believe it would be an invasion of privacy of those in the Reach Up program.
“If they are accepting the assistance, I think there should be some conditions before receiving this assistance,” Turner said. “We owe it to our constituents to make sure we can give people help, but to make sure that it’s not being abused.”
The bill seeks to require the state’s Department for Children and Families to screen applicants of the Reach Up program for potential substance abuse. If an applicant screens positive, the bill calls for DCF to test that person for illegal substances.
If an applicant refuses to take a drug test, that person would not be eligible for Reach Up benefits, according to the bill. The Reach Up applicants would be offered substance abuse treatment at no cost if test results are positive for the use of illicit drugs or prescription drugs being used illegally.
An applicant in treatment will be eligible for Reach Up benefits, but will be dropped if treatment is not completed.
If an applicant’s benefits are terminated, his/or her children would not be dropped. Instead, the applicant would need to “designate a protective payee to receive the benefits on behalf of the dependent child or children,” according to the proposal.
DCF Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown said the Reach Up program serves 3,835 households and 9,033 individuals, while the Reach Ahead program, which assists those transitioning to employment, serves 577 households and 1,775 people. The average monthly financial benefit for a three-person household is $650, Brown said.
“We do have some concerns as far as its impacts on low-income families,” he said of the bill. “It might discourage them from coming into the program to help support their kids.”