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Republican leader proposes drug testing for welfare recipients

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The House Republican leader 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 House Minority Leader Rep. Don 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, adding that the state has been working to address an opioid crisis through increased availability of treatment opportunities.

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 Democratically controlled Legislature, but thought it was important to raise the issue.

“I don’t think it’s probably going to advance very far, but I think it’s important enough to be considered by a committee,” Turner said. “I’m hoping the committee will at least take a serious look at it, if not for this biennium, then for the coming biennium, to start to get a handle on this.”

James Duff Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, 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,” he 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,” he said. “We it owe 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 a take a drug test, that person would not be eligible for Reach Up benefits, according to the bill. The proposal calls for Reach Up applicants to 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, according to the bill, but will be terminated from the program if treatment is not completed.

If an applicant’s benefits are terminated, that person’s children would not be dropped from the program, according to the proposal. Instead, the applicant would need to “designate a protective payee to receive the benefits on behalf of the dependent child or children.”

DCF Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown of the economic services division said Tuesday he was aware of the bill. He said the Reach Up program already steers recipients to treatment when it is deemed appropriate, though it’s not mandatory that they accept it.

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.”

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