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Oklahoma's drug screening of welfare applicants proves costly

Efforts to identify and prevent Oklahomans using illegal drugs from receiving certain taxpayer-financed welfare benefits cost the state more than $82,700 in the first seven months after a new law took effect. The net result was 83 adults were denied benefits.
by Randy Ellis Modified: September 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: September 1, 2013

Efforts to identify and prevent Oklahomans high on illegal drugs from receiving certain taxpayer-financed welfare benefits cost the state more than $82,700 in the first seven months after a new law took effect.

The net result was 83 adults — about 4.4 percent of those applying — were denied benefits.

Oklahoma's drug screening and testing program is more expensive — and arguably less reliable — than the one originally envisioned and proposed by then-state Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City, back in Jan. 2012.

It all sounded so simple when the bill was introduced: Oklahoma adults seeking welfare assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would be required to take a drug test.

The goal was to save the state money, Liebmann stated at the time.

Liebmann's initial bill called for the welfare applicants to pay the costs of drug testing, but it was amended so that the state now pays those bills.

The proposed law encountered a roadblock when word spread that a federal judge in Florida had issued a temporary injunction months earlier blocking enforcement of a similar law there. The court's decision was based on Fourth Amendment concerns that requiring mandatory drug testing of all applicants represented an “unreasonable search” by the government without cause.

A federal appeals court upheld the injunction in February.

Rather than risk a similar costly lawsuit in Oklahoma, state senators amended the bill here so that not all TANF applicants are required to submit to a urinalysis or similar chemical drug test.

Instead, all Oklahoma applicants are required to go through a screening process called the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) where they are asked a series of indirect questions designed to detect whether they are likely illegal drug users.

Individuals identified as likely drug abusers can be required to go through an additional screening evaluation called the Addiction Severity Index and pass a urinalysis test before being approved for benefits.

The Addiction Severity Index evaluation is administered by a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and is much lengthier and more intensive than the SASSI screening, said Mark Beutler, communications manager for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Mental health contract workers administered SASSI screening tests to 1,890 TANF applicants from November through May, Beutler said.

Each SASSI screening cost the state $20, so the combined cost of those screenings over a seven-month period was $37,800, he said.

Based on those screening results, 285 clients were required to also go through the Addiction Severity Index evaluation and 537 were required to take a urinalysis test before they could receive benefits. Each Addiction Severity Index screening cost the state $122 and each urinalysis test cost the state $19, he said. So the total cost of the Addiction Severity Index Tests was $34,770 and the total cost of the urinalysis tests was $10,203.

When the costs of all three drug screenings are added together, the total comes to $82,773. That's more than double the $35,910 it would have cost if Oklahoma TANF applicants had all been screened using just urinalysis testing as former state Rep. Liebmann originally envisioned.

The additional tests also have introduced some reliability questions.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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