Failure to Launch: North Carolina Drug Test Program Fizzles

By Paul Gaita 08/01/14

A lack of funding and an overwhelming backlog of applications has stalled the testing program before it could begin.

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A new law that requires welfare applicants in North Carolina to undergo drug testing in order to receive benefits has stalled shortly before its projected launch date.

County service officials in the state are awaiting guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on how to properly execute the Work First Family Assistance program, which provides job training and benefits to low-income families with the provision that parents engage in work-related activities and submit to testing if social workers believe that they are using drugs.

A combination of factors has caused the law to run aground, including a lack of appropriate funding for the program and a vast backlog of applications for other programs like Medicaid and food stamps that have already taxed the state’s processing systems. Drug testing was slated to begin on August 1, 2014, but a technical corrections bill, HB 1133, which included a provision that would push the launch date to July 1, 2015, has been approved by the North Carolina House and is expected to go before the Senate this week.

The Work First Family Assistance program, which began as HB 392, has been regarded with skepticism since its proposal in 2013. Governor Pat McCrory vetoed the bill, citing doubts about successful implementation and the potential of legal challenges. But fellow Republicans in the house overrode the veto, forcing McCrory to state that he would refuse to enforce the bill until sufficient funding could be secured. Though his statement drew criticism from the legislature, the Work First program still lacks the funds needed to cover more than 5,000 annual drug tests, which are estimated to cost $540,594 per year.

But even if funding was appropriated, the DHHS still needs to submit the program’s rules to a variety of commissions and offices and await their approval, a process that may take several months. As of this writing, “DHHS has not submitted the rules to the Rules Review Commission, so they have not been officially published,” said Kristi Clifford, press assistant in the DHHS communications office.

Even if the rule process were pushed through, the department must still find a sufficient number of drug testing facilities in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties—a process that has yet to be completed. They must also determine a way in which the Division of Social Services can complete its backlog of Medicaid and food stamps applications, which have already bogged down their outdated computer system, while taking on the additional work within the time frame outlined by the bill.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.