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For many county governments across Minnesota, the law has become a logistical headache. As with many state mandates, counties were required to enforce the law but were given no additional money and little guidance from the state.
Some county officials say the cost of identifying, contacting and testing a tiny number of convicted drug felons will exceed the savings from terminating benefits for the few who fail the drug tests.
In some rural jurisdictions, such as Freeborn and Wadena counties, fewer than a dozen drug felons are subject to random testing under the law, according to state records. Even so, each county must develop protocols for contacting them and administering regular tests.
“This just takes away that much time that we could be working to get benefits out to people faster,” said Welsch, Olmsted County’s director of family support and assistance.
Already, some people are starting to lose their benefits — not because they failed a drug test but because of paperwork burdens.
People receiving General Assistance (GA), a state program that provides monthly cash benefits to about 22,000 adults who are unable to work, now must prove that they are participating in drug treatment, or have successfully completed treatment or have been assessed by the county as not needing treatment. The rule applies only to program recipients who have completed a drug felony sentence within the past five years.
Olmsted County recently terminated benefits for two people because they failed to meet the program’s requirements. St. Louis County says it has terminated benefits for “at least three people.” Hennepin County expects to send out letters in January, which means that some people could start losing benefits as early as February.
One hitch is that many of the people affected by the law may never receive their legal notices because they are homeless or live in transitional housing, according to Kathleen Davis, supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. Others, she said, may no longer have the documents to prove they completed treatment.
Davis said her office got benefits reinstated for two individuals who had been improperly terminated. “This will have serious ramifications,” Davis said. “A lot of people will lose their benefits before they ever get to the random drug testing, because they aren’t able to satisfactorily prove that they meet the criteria.”
Another headache for counties is determining how to conduct random drug tests. Some counties have decided that “random” means selecting a random sample of convicted drug felons, while others have decided to test everyone with a felony drug conviction but at random times.
“There is considerable time and energy going into implementing this [law] that will affect very few people,” said Monty Martin, director of Ramsey County Community Human Services. “And we may never know the long-term implications of denying benefits to people who may be chemically dependent.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308