By Phillip Smith
Lawmakers in Alabama are pushing the envelope on the drug testing of people who receive public benefits. While legislators in a number of states have targeted welfare or unemployment recipients for drug testing, a bill in Montgomery would require drug testing of Medicaid recipients.
Distinct from Medicare, the federal program aimed at senior citizens, Medicaid is run by the individual states and is designed to make health care accessible for low-income people who are blind or disabled. It also covers low-income pregnant women, children, seniors, and people residing in nursing homes.
Pre-filed by state Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), Senate Bill 26, also known as the Patient Accountability and Personal Responsibility Act, would require that Medicaid recipients undergo random suspicionless drug tests at least once each year and that new applicants undergo a drug test before deemed eligible for Medicaid benefits. The cost of the drug tests would be added to recipients' premiums.
People who fail to take a drug test or test positive would be denied Medicaid benefits. There is no provision for treatment, but those who are thrown off the rolls could be reinstated if they pass another drug test a year later. The drug test results could not be used in any criminal proceedings "without the consent of the person tested."
The bill would not apply to nursing home residents, prisoners, people in mental hospitals or those in other long-term care facilities.
Lawmakers favoring the bill claimed the number of illegal drug users getting state-funded health care has "skyrocketed" in recent years, with the cost estimated at "unknown millions." State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) told WHNT News the proposed law would save taxpayer money while forcing accountability on Medicaid recipients.
"If you want to use drugs and you want the taxpayers to pick up the tab on your health care, if this bill passes, forget about it," said Senator Orr. "If I'm going to use illegal drugs that are going to hurt myself, why ask taxpayers to fund my medical care?"
Random suspicionless drug testing for welfare recipients and state employees have been struck down by various state and federal courts as violating the right to be free of unwarranted searches, although a new Florida welfare drug testing law has yet to be challenged. Lawmakers told WHNT News they thought the Alabama bill is more legally sound because it only deals with public health programs, and if the bill ever becomes law, they are likely to find out in the courts if their legal theory is correct.
SB 26 has passed a first reading and has been assigned to the Senate Health Committee.