A pilot program is under way in Schuylkill County, the results of which will help determine how a statewide drug-testing system for some welfare recipients will be implemented.

The program, which began Jan. 3 and is set to last six months, launched in Schuylkill, in part, due to the county's population and its proximity to Harrisburg, said Carey Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

Miller said the two state prisons in Schuylkill County benefit the study, adding that in-county probation and parole agencies have the capability to perform the mandated drug testing.

She said two additional counties will be added to the pilot program in March, and the results of the three-county study will help determine the cost-effectiveness of statewide testing, which could begin this summer.

Miller's colleague, DPW

spokeswoman Anne Bale, addressed the program in a recent interview with NewsWorks.org.

"We're looking to find out will this actually end up costing more than having people receiving benefits that may be using drugs," she said. "Or will we save money by ensuring that those people who are using drugs are not receiving a benefit?"

Could save $400 million

Gov. Tom Corbett signed the testing into law last summer as part of a measure designed to save $400 million for DPW this fiscal year.

The testing applies only to welfare recipients who are currently on probation for or have been convicted of a felony drug offense in the last five years and are enrolled either in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program or General Assistance Program.

At least one of every five recipients eligible for drug testing would be subject to random tests every six months.

While county assistance office staff would determine which individuals meet the criteria, exactly how individuals would be chosen at random for testing has not yet been determined, Miller said.

According to the law, someone who initially fails the test would be subject to drug treatment by a county's drug and alcohol agency. If a person refuses to cooperate, assistance would be suspended for six months.

A second failure carries a 12-month suspension, while a third failure would render an individual permanently ineligible for assistance, the law states.

Local co-sponsors

The measure was co-sponsored by Northumberland County's Kurt Masser, R-107, and Schuylkill County's trio of state representatives, Neal Goodman, D-123, Jerry Knowles, R-124, and Mike Tobash, R-125.

Masser said drug testing welfare recipients isn't intended as a law enforcement mechanism; rather, it's to help deter waste and fraud.

He said he supports drug testing all welfare recipients, saying anyone receiving public assistance should have to meet the same accountability standards as state employees or, for that matter, most employees in the private sector, too. But this is a start.

"When you're in Harrisburg, you learn sometimes you have to do things in steps," Masser said. "I could have gone right across the board for randoms."

While the cost to implement the program has yet to be determined, Tobash said that if it looked to be exorbitant, he would have raised an eyebrow or voted against it.

"The intention here is to save taxpayer dollars and get rid of fraud, waste and abuse in a system that has a lot of fraud, waste and abuse in it," Tobash said.

Goodman noted how commonplace drug testing has become in the workplace, both public and private sector, saying a similar burden placed on those receiving taxpayer-funded benefits is not unreasonable.

"All of us are going to be looking at the results and get feedback from the department to see if they feel it should be expanded," Goodman said.

Knowles, who wasn't aware Schuylkill County was chosen for the pilot program, said, "I see nothing wrong with the fact at all that they'll use Schuylkill County as a pilot. ... I'm sure that the county will keep all of us well-informed."