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WellPoint, Inc. (WLP), Aetna Inc. (AET): Is Welfare Becoming a for-Profit Business?

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The social health and financial buffer put in place in the United States to protect the basic human needs of all individuals, collectively known as welfare, is gigantic. Some 47.8 million people are currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, which you may know better by its short-hand term, food stamps. Also, as of mid-January, close to 5.6 million people were receiving some form of unemployment benefits.

The scope of welfare is difficult to comprehend, but the amount of money spent by federal and state governments on social and health programs is plain as day. According to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), welfare spending between state and federal governments is up more than 30% since President Obama took office and topped $1 trillion in 2011, based on a study released last October.

We’ve definitely seen certain companies angling themselves to take advantage of the increasing government dollars flowing into welfare — especially in the health-care sector. The passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is going to bring upwards of 16 million newly insured low-income individuals and families under the umbrella of government-sponsored Medicaid, so insurers have been doing everything they can to get their slice of the pie. WellPoint, Inc. (NYSE:WLP) ponied up $4.5 billion to buy Amerigroup and hurdle past UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE:UNH) to become the nation’s largest private Medicaid insurer. Aetna Inc. (NYSE:AET) followed suit shortly thereafter in August with a $5.6 billion purchase of Coventry Health Care, Inc. (NYSE:CVH), aimed, similarly, at gaining more Medicaid-based customers.

Is the game about to change?
The point is we’ve expected this of health insurers and certain medical service providers for years. But, the way I see it, a completely different set of circumstances currently making their rounds throughout the states could greatly broaden the scope of welfare from simply a basic human-needs service to a for-profit business.

WellPoint IncWhat I’m talking about is the ongoing debate over mandatory drug testing. Certain states, including Michigan in 1999, Florida in 2011, and Georgia in 2012, passed laws that allowed them to mandate that everyone receiving welfare be drug tested before divvying out their monthly disbursement. In Michigan, this law was overturned in 2003, and in Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued for, and had a federal appeals court uphold, a temporary ban against the encompassing drug screenings for everyone on welfare. Other states, including Arizona, Missouri, Utah, and Oklahoma also test welfare recipients, but only if there’s a reasonable cause for suspicion according to The Wall Street Journal.

As with all political battlegrounds, there are two sides to this issue. On one hand, with government budgets tightening because of the sequester, it would be nice to know that members of society who need a helping hand are getting it. Mandatory drug testing would keep that money out of the hands of illicit drug dealers and put it in the hands of people who need the assistance.

Conversely, mandatory drug testing is expensive and time consuming, and it hasn’t proved to be a money-saving effort in its short history. According to USA Today, Arizona’s “suspicion-driven” testing was effective only 0.00001% of the time, with only one person of the 87,000 tested coming back positive. The head-banger of the Arizona test is that applicants had only to answer a question “yes” or “no” to whether they had used illegal drugs in the past 30 days. If they answered “no,” then Arizona couldn’t test them! Even in Florida, where everyone is testing everyone, only 2.7% of applicants have failed the drug screening. Worse yet, the test costs $30-$40 and is to be paid by the applicant. The applicant is reimbursed if he or she passes, but $30-$40 can sometimes be hard to scrape together for welfare recipients.

The real question is whether other states will catch onto and adopt this idea — and the answer seems to be leaning toward “yes.” In 2011, 36 of 50 states considered adopting some form of drug testing for welfare recipients, based on figures in The New York Times — a dramatic increase from previous years. If adopted on a large scale, it could push welfare from being just a battleground for health-service providers to a free-for-all across a myriad of sectors.

Welfare as a driver of profits
First of all, drug diagnostic companies would be the logical winners under a larger adoption scenario. Regardless of whether these companies are paid by the state or by the recipient, it’s guaranteed money in their pocket. Under a wider adoption scenario, I wouldn’t even be surprised if diagnostic companies switched gears and developed their own drug-testing kits in order to join the fray.

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