AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage hailed drug screenings for certain welfare recipients as a way to protect taxpayer dollars. But since the program was launched a few months ago, only a handful of recipients have been ordered to take tests and most people who have lost their assistance have done so because they failed to show up, the administration said.
The state in April began administering drug-screening assessments to recipients in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program who have been convicted of drug felony crimes, arguing that welfare dollars shouldn't be enabling drug abuse. People who fail the screenings are then required to submit to a urinalysis.
However, just 15 recipients were scheduled for screenings through June, the latest month for which data was available, according to figures provided to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Access Act request.
Of those, 13 were barred from receiving benefits because they didn't show up to take either the screening assessment or the subsequent urinalysis, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said.
Only one person tested positive for drugs and was stripped of benefits, the department said.
DHHS says the program is just getting started. Bethany Hamm, director of the department's Office for Family Independence, estimates that about 100 recipients, among roughly 5,700 TANF cases, have prior drug felony convictions and will eventually be screened.
"We are moving through methodically so that we don't inadvertently test somebody that we shouldn't be testing," Hamm said.
LePage pushed during the last legislative session to expand drug screening to all TANF recipients and eliminate benefits for those with drug felonies, but his measure was rejected by lawmakers, who question whether the tests are worth the time and money.
Nationwide, the effectiveness of such programs remains to be seen. Some states have been unable to show that money was saved. But Utah officials reported in 2013 that requiring drug screening for welfare applicants saved more than $350,000 in its first year.
Federal law bars people with prior drug felonies from receiving welfare benefits, but states can opt to do so anyway. Maine is one of at least five states that allow those with felony drug convictions to receive benefits if they receive a drug test, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Advocates for the poor and civil liberties defenders in Maine say the fact that people are being kicked off the assistance program for simply not showing up is alarming.
"The purpose of laws like this is to help people into treatment or to identify people who are using drugs. What we are seeing, which is what we suspected, is that people are being denied benefits for other reasons," said Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which fiercely opposed LePage's effort.
Recipients may not be able to find child care or they may refuse because they believe it violates their right to privacy, Amarasingham said.
"It's not clear at all that people are skipping drug tests because they are drug users," she said.
Hamm said recipients choose the day and time for the test, which can be taken at 50 laboratory sites across the state. The state will pay for their travel costs and will reschedule the test, if necessary, she said.
She said she believes it's likely that many people are not showing up because they know they will fail.
The program has cost $624 so far and is being paid for through a federal block grant, a DHHS spokesman said.
Hamm said she's confident that the effort is worth the time and money because it is helping people into substance abuse treatment who need it. People who test positive for drugs can enter a substance abuse program to maintain their benefits.
"It is important for us to make sure that we are doing all we can to help these families and get them back into a place where they can achieve self-sufficiency and get out of poverty," Hamm said.
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