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.
Beutler told The Oklahoman the SASSI screenings have a “98 percent success rate.”
Beutler said he was quoting information obtained several months ago from the SASSI Institute, which sells the tests.
The SASSI Institute currently claims on its website that the SASSI screening tests have a 94 percent accuracy rate.
However, two researchers from New Mexico have publicly questioned those claims.
“No one has been able to replicate anything like the authors' marketing claim of a 98 percent accuracy rate for the SASSI,” William R. Miller, one of the authors of the critical article, told The Oklahoman.
“We were surprised that no one except the scale's authors, themselves, reported finding unique predictive validity,” said Miller, emeritus distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. “In particular … there was no advantage in ‘subtle' items — the scale performed about the same as much simpler direct screening instruments that are available in the public domain.”
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, was the state Senate author of the welfare drug testing bill.
Holt said he believes using the SASSI screening to decide which clients must take the urinalysis test resolves the federal court's concerns about clients being required to submit to unreasonable government searches without cause.
Even if the SASSI screening is not 100 percent reliable, that screening, alone, will never cause someone to be denied benefits, he said.
“Nobody is going to be denied until they've had a urinalysis,” Holt said. “In the end, from the applicant's perspective, it's a good system.”
DHS was using the SASSI and other tests to screen for drug use among TANF applicants even before the new law was adopted, Holt said. Previously, when applicants failed the tests they were referred to a treatment program, but were still allowed to draw benefits while undergoing treatment.
Applicants who fail the tests now still are referred to treatment programs, but the major difference now is that adult clients who fail the tests are denied benefits for at least six months and must prove they are clean from drug use before receiving TANF benefits, he said.
“I felt that was an important policy change to make,” Holt said.
Since the state was doing drug screening before, those expenses are not new, he said.
“It's an expense. It's still money. But it's not anything that the bill caused,” he said.
Beutler said all the testing resulted in just 83 adult clients being denied benefits, including some who refused to take the urinalysis test.
How much money those denials have saved the state is unknown. Beutler said monthly TANF amounts vary, but an average household with one adult and two children receives $292 a month. Children can still receive TANF benefits, even if their parents are denied, with the money administered by a responsible third-party.
“I've never promised people that thousands and thousands of people are going to get kicked off the rolls,” Holt said. “I always knew it was a relatively small amount.”
However, Holt said the number denied benefits may not tell the whole story.
“You never know how many people just don't apply because they know they're going to be tested,” he said.