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Crow Wing County Board: Drug tests disqualify some seeking public assistance

A new drug-testing program funded by Crow Wing County works--but exactly how successful it is as a deterrent for those seeking food or cash, and getting people off of drugs, is debatable.

Crow Wing County Community Services Division Manager Sheila Skogen talks about drug testing of government assistance applicants as County Administrator Tim Houle (left) and commissioners Rosemary Franzen, Paul Koering and Paul Thiede look on at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the County Historic Courthouse. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Crow Wing County Community Services Division Manager Sheila Skogen talks about drug testing of government assistance applicants as County Administrator Tim Houle (left) and commissioners Rosemary Franzen, Paul Koering and Paul Thiede look on at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the County Historic Courthouse. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

A new drug-testing program funded by Crow Wing County works-but exactly how successful it is as a deterrent for those seeking food or cash, and getting people off of drugs, is debatable.

Community services started a policy in November through the state of Minnesota to drug test people who have a drug-felony conviction within the past 10 years who want financial assistance or help buying groceries from the government.

"It was new for us to do that, and if they tested positive for drugs, then they were given options to go to treatment or they might be sanctioned the first time and get another chance later," Community Services Division Manager Sheila Skogen said of the state-recommended policy.

"It says we should (adopt the policy), but it doesn't tell us what will happen if we don't or it doesn't give us any real direction, so we decided to try it out and come back to you and let you know what it looked like over that period of time."

Skogen presented the county commissioners data from Nov. 1 through Sept. 30 related to drug felons. She was at the Tuesday, Oct. 16, committee of the whole meeting to provide more information about the trial program.

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"Only drug-related felony offenses are required to test. If the test shows positive for drugs, they are sanctioned (reduced benefits) the first time. If there's a second occurrence of testing positive for drugs, then they become disqualified for benefits" Skogen said after the meeting.

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Tested were 157 people and 91 of those (58 percent) tested negative for drugs in their system or passed the test, while 15 (or 10 percent) of those tested had drugs in their system.

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Tested were 157 people and 91 of those (58 percent) tested negative for drugs in their system or passed the test, while 15 (or 10 percent) of those tested had drugs in their system.

"Fifty of them didn't show for testing, so I'm making the assumption that there was a reason they didn't show, so I combined those two figures (50 and 15) and came up with 65 (or about 41 percent) that did not show up for testing or tested positive for drugs," Skogen said.

Community services broke down the reasons the 65 failed the drug test or were never tested by the county. Of the amount, 21 were permanently disqualified, four were sanctioned and temporarily receive reduced benefits and six were incarcerated, according to county officials.

"Thirteen of them didn't follow through on application, five of them moved out of the county, two withdrew their application for assistance, eight whose whereabouts are unknown, and two are in our fraud pending," Skogen said.

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Skogen said those requesting help are not tested for drugs if they are seeking Medical Assistance, and 61 of the 65 who failed their drug tests or failed to show up for testing no longer receive public assistance.

Regarding the 32 percent of the 65 total who were "permanently disqualified," the percentage included 18 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cases, also known as SNAP, that were affected for a total of $1,535, and three affected cash assistance cases for a total of $1,764.

The county's drug-testing program, which cost $2,012 after state and federal reimbursements, saved the state a total of $3,299 for those who were permanently disqualified. Those figures do not include savings due to those who are, for example, incarcerated or who have relocated.

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The county's drug-testing program, which cost $2,012 after state and federal reimbursements, saved the state a total of $3,299 for those who were permanently disqualified. Those figures do not include savings due to those who are, for example, incarcerated or who have relocated.

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"Those numbers are dollars that would have been disbursed through those programs," County Commissioner Paul Thiede said.

The county paid Mid-Minnesota Drug Testing Inc. a total of $3,815 for drug tests from November to August, but received $1,803 in state and federal reimbursements, so the actual cost to the county was $2,012.

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"If we have the problems that we have with drugs in this community, this seems to me to be sending the right message. ... You are catching some people who are looking to support their drug habits through these programs," Thiede said of using drug testing to screen applicants.

Community Services Director Kara Terry said, "That's making an assumption though, Commissioner. ... We have thousands of cases, so when you look at the number of people (in the drug felon data), it's a tiny percentage of the actual, overall number of cases that we have."

Sara McKusick is a financial assistance specialist with the county who said public assistance applicants are offered treatment options before they are sanctioned.

"I think one of the tragedies here is that the family system could be impacted, and so a little kid-who didn't do anything wrong but their parents did something wrong-could also get impacted here," County Administrator Tim Houle said.

Thiede said, "How many of those are families versus individuals? I think that would be helpful data going down the road."

Driving the county's 2019 preliminary budget is increasing methamphetamine use in the county and rising employee health insurance costs. Final budget approval is slated for next month.

Drug-tested assistance programs

Those who test positive for drugs or fail the county's drug tests may be disqualified from receiving public assistance from the following government programs:

  • The Diversionary Work Program is a four-month program that helps parents find jobs. The goal is to help parents quickly find work so they do not need to go on the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
  • The Minnesota Family Investment Program helps families meet their basic needs, while helping parents move to financial stability through work, and parents are supported in working with both cash and food assistance.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps those with low incomes receive nutritious and well-balanced meals, and the supplemental program provides support to help stretch a household's food budget.
  • The General Assistance Program helps people without children pay for basic needs. It provides money to people who can't work enough to support themselves, and whose income and resources are very low.
  • Minnesota Supplemental Aid provides cash assistance to help adults who get Supplemental Security Income pay for their basic needs.

Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services

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