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By Steve Ahillen January 13, 2012

State senator says price for tests would be low to for benefit recipients

State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, wants drug testing for individuals seeking government-related benefits, and he said in an interview that costs of testing, to be paid for by the applicant, should not be expensive. "It’s not going to cost that much, just $4 or $5, if it’s limited to hardcore illegal drugs."

We wondered if a drug test that can withstand legal scrutiny can be purchased so cheaply.

Research backs up Campfield’s claim, and reliable tests can actually be had even more cheaply. But figuring the state’s tab and actual costs for such a program is not as simple as running a price check on individual drug tests. Administrative costs and potential re-tests of individuals who test positive could raise the actual price tag.

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In the interview, Campfield acknowledged there would be other costs but said the savings from having fewer people on the government dole will more than offset them. Still, we wondered just how expensive such a program would be.

First, a little background.

Campfield said he plans to push three bills calling for drug testing: one dealing with persons on welfare, one for those drawing unemployment compensation and one for those receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

One state that recently tried something similar, Florida, had only 32 people fail the test and 1,600 refused to take it, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The cost to the state has been substantial. Then U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven issued an injunction against the law in October. The state is appealing.

Campfield said he is aware of the Florida situation and plans to avoid its pitfalls. A big one:  the state was on the hook for the $25 to $45 each test costs if the individual passed. Campfield’s measure would have the applicant assuming the cost regardless. His test would not cover prescription drugs -- the biggest area of abuse in Tennessee but also a legal hot potato because of the thousands who take prescription drugs legally.

For Ron Hanaver, director of the Knox (County) Drug Court,  drug testing is a key tool, so we asked him if drug tests could be had for $4 or $5. His emailed response:

"Those tests can, in fact, be tested for about that price.  We are currently using a 5-panel test that tests for opiates, cocaine, THC, and 2 other drugs for about $3.50."

American Screening Corp owner Ron Kilgarlin says his company offers a five-panel test  for $1.63 apiece, but Hanaver describes five-panel tests as "instant ‘dip’ tests" that "are not 100% accurate." Hanaver says that failures of those tests may mean administering a backup, known as a "gcms test," but what he calls "non-negative" tests needing the backup occur only about 2 percent of the time or less.

Kilgarlin says those "gcms" tests usually run for $25 apiece but could be reduced to $14 apiece for a big enough client.

And, what other costs are there? A report put out in October by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services looking at various costs of programs aimed at drug testing recipients of government benefits.

It lists many areas: purchasing the drug tests, laboratory fees, staff time to administer the test, staff time to monitor compliance and eligibility, staff time to deal with increased administrative hearings, modifying facilities to accommodate the testing, modifying computer programs to include drug testing in eligibility, substance abuse treatment, hiring a contractor to administer the test, legal fees if the law is challenged. A table included in the report looks at the expected costs of programs offered by the 12 states that are considering such programs (or, in Florida’s case, have instituted). Those estimates range from $20 million in New York to  $92,487 in Louisiana.

Count Hanaver, the Knox County drug-court director, among those skeptical about keeping costs low for a statewide program that tests benefit recipients for illegal drug use. "When you talk about doing drug screens on a state-wide scale, the cost would be huge," he says.

Campfield clarified to us that he was referring just to the cost of the individual tests, and believes the legislation will result in the state saving a substantial amount of money, not spending more. He said the savings would come from not paying benefits to people who test positive - or who don’t apply for benefits knowing they will test positive. Once the bill is filed, legislative staff of the state’s Fiscal Review Committee will do a fiscal note estimating costs to the state.

Our Ruling

Campfield’s claim that initial five-panel tests for illegal drugs can cost $5 or less is accurate, although it is unclear how other costs, for things like re-testing and administration, could affect the ultimate per-person cost of each individual test. We rate this Mostly True.

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