July 23, 2014 10:14:47 AM
JACKSON -- A Mississippi agency should be cautious in carrying out a new welfare drug-testing law and should not set administrative rules that could penalize an entire household for one person's behavior, advocates for civil liberties and poor people told officials Tuesday.
More than a dozen people spoke during a hearing to gather feedback about the state law. It was supposed to take effect July 1, but that was delayed because the state requires a public comment period.
The law says applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families must answer a questionnaire and then take a drug test if their answers suggest possible drug abuse. Those who test positive would undergo treatment before they could receive cash assistance. If a person tests positive for drugs after receiving treatment, the assistance would end.
The state Department of Human Services wrote a set of administrative rules for carrying out the law, and those are posted to the secretary of state's website.
Beth Orlansky, advocacy director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the rules are broader than the law in one significant way that could harm children.
The law says TANF benefits could be taken away from a person who tests positive for drug use after treatment, or who fails to follow any requirement such as showing up for drug testing. The rules written by DHS say that testing positive for drug use or failing to follow other requirements could result in TANF being taken away from the person's entire household.
"The agency is not supposed to go beyond what the statute says," Orlansky said Tuesday.
About a dozen DHS employees, including two deputy directors listened to the comments Tuesday. The deputies declined to comment.
Information about the cost of drug testing was not immediately available from DHS.
Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said not everyone who receives TANF is covered by Medicaid and it's not clear whether Medicaid would pay for drug treatment that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"If they could afford it, they would not be receiving TANF benefits," Riley-Collins said.
The DHS website shows 4,347 adults and 12,914 children in Mississippi received TANF benefits in May, the most recent month available. The average monthly payment was $67.94 for an individual $139.65 for a family, although the family size was not specified.
Cleveland resident Eva Woodall, who has received TANF, said Tuesday that drug testing creates another burden for poor people.
"What if there's a false positive?" Woodall asked.
Nobody at the hearing spoke in favor of the drug-testing law that passed the Republican-controlled Legislature largely along party lines. Several Democratic legislators said they believe the law is punitive and should be changed or repealed.
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