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Dana Ferrell - TANF

West Virginia Del. Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha, speaks about Senate Bill 387 on April 7 in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — A bill to continue drug testing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefit recipients is soon headed to the desk of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

The House of Delegates passed Senate Bill 387 on Wednesday morning. The bill, as amended by the House, extends the drug testing pilot program until 2026.

TANF is short-term assistance for families with children. Of the more than 6,000 TANF recipients in West Virginia, most are children. Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, TANF benefits can be used to pay bills or buy household necessities.

When applying, a person fills out a drug screening form and, if they meet the standard, must undergo a drug test. If a person tests positive for an illegal substance, they must attend a treatment program to be able to receive benefits. The benefits for the person’s child would then be transferred to another person in the household or close to the child.

The drug testing pilot was started in 2017. Since then, 131 positive drug tests have been found and one person has completed treatment, or 4%. Of those positives, 61 were for marijuana.

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, attempted to amend the bill Tuesday to remove marijuana from the list of drugs tested for. He said there are no treatment programs for marijuana users, which means the program could potentially take beds away from those needing treatment for hard drugs like heroin. Marijuana also stays in the system longer than other drugs, and is legal in parts of the country.

“We shouldn’t run bills for optics when the department tells us the program is an abject failure,” Pushkin said.

Those in favor of the program say it keeps tax dollars from being spent on illegal drugs. Others, like Del. Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha, said the program is a form of tough love.

Ferrell said as a parent of a child with substance use disorder, it’s a disease that tears at the entire family.

“When they call you up and ask you to put $20 in the mailbox because they need money, but you know they are going to use it to buy drugs or something … everything in you wants to help and provide for them,” he said.

But a friend in the Huntington recovery community told Ferrell he needed to have a little tough love, and he said this is what this bill does. It says the state will help when the person is doing the right thing, but not until.

TANF applications have dipped since 2017, from 1,700 to 1,500 last year. Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, chair of the House Health Committee, said the Department of Health and Human Resources has not studied why cases have dropped.

Those against the bill say it unfairly targets poor people and hurts children.

Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, said she has received TANF twice in her life — once in Louisiana and once in West Virginia. At the time, she wasn’t able to afford toilet paper or toothpaste, she said. She said the bill kicks children down the road.

“I don’t want to punish children for the mistakes of their guardian,” she said.

A national study of states with similar laws found that of more than 263,000 applicants, less than 1% were rejected from TANF for positive drug tests, while the total cost of screening and testing surpassed $200,000. There was no fiscal note with SB 387, but DHHR said the cost of the tests overall was about $30,000.

The bill passed 80-20. It now goes back to the Senate, which can accept the changes made by the House or work with the House to reach a compromise before sending the bill to the governor’s desk. The only major change was the extension of the program from just one year to 2026.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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