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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

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.

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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