Changes proposed to fed drug testing programs

Alternative sampling flawed, critics claim

A trade association representing the drug testing industry has lodged concerns with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over flaws the trade group says are in proposed changes to federal drug testing programs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of HHS, is proposing a new rule that would allow federal agencies to use sweat, saliva, and hair in federal drug testing programs that now only test urine. The proposal would also allow selected specimen testing at the time and place it is collected — point-of-collection testing that would give immediate, preliminary results.

But during the comment period, which ended in July, DATIA, the Washington, DC- based Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, submitted strenuous objections to portions of the proposed changes. DATIA executive director Laura Shelton wrote that while the association applauds the introduction of sweat, saliva, and hair as alternative samples for workplace drug testing, some of the requirements in the proposed guidelines "will negate the positive benefits of using these new technologies."

In addition, proposed changes that would permit employers more flexibility as to who performs the tests and where could have a negative impact on existing drug testing sites.

Testing hair, saliva, and sweat for drugs. The SAMHSA proposal is predicated on scientific advances that will allow use of hair, saliva, and sweat specimens to be used with the same level of confidence that has been applied to the use of urine, according to SAMHSA spokeswoman Leah Young. The proposed rule spells out when these alternative specimens and testing devices may be used, the procedures that must be used in collecting samples, and the certification process for approving a laboratory to test these alternative specimens.

"These proposed rules will largely affect federal employees and job applicants in safety and security-related positions," SAMHSA admini-strator Charles Curie explains. "Hopefully, federal employees found to be using illegal drugs will seek treatment to allow them to attain a healthy life in the community. At the same time, we believe that drug testing provides a powerful deterrent to the destructive and dangerous conditions drug use creates."

About 400,000 federal workers in testing designated positions — those who have security clearances, carry firearms, deal with public safety or national security, or are presidential appointees — are drug tested when they apply for jobs. Some are subject to random drug testing during their employment. Other federal employees are tested only if they are involved in a workplace accident or show signs of possible drug use.

Impact on private sector. The proposed changes have farther-reaching implications, however; if adopted by the Department of Transportation for use in the trucking industry, the new testing procedures would affect private employers and workers, as well.

Under the proposed rule, federal agencies will choose whether to use the new tests. There is no requirement to test hair, saliva, or sweat. Agencies will consider their own needs and whether employees may consider these tests less intrusive and less invasive of privacy than collecting urine specimens.

The proposed rule would implement procedures to ensure that all federal agencies split every collected specimen, whether hair, oral fluid, sweat, or urine. This added safeguard benefits both the person tested and the agency, by providing a system that would permit the person tested to request an immediate double-check if a specimen comes back from the laboratory showing it is positive for drugs.

Shorter time for results. The proposed new rule also will shorten the time for negative results to be reported to the federal agency by establishing criteria for a testing facility that will only perform initial tests and not confirmatory tests. The proposed rule also addresses point-of-collection tests or on-site testing kits, as well as people who do the testing. Positive results in the initial testing facility or in point-of-collection tests will still need to be confirmed by a certified laboratory.

Rapid results are an attractive feature, particularly if an employee in a sensitive job is suspected of being impaired, Young points out.

The new rules could pressure service providers to lower the prices they charge for laboratory tests, and give businesses greater flexibility in running their testing programs, a prospect that DATIA members don’t like. "The proposal for federal agencies to conduct semiannual inspections of collection sites that it uses will be an enormous burden and an unrealistic requirement," Shelton stated in a letter sent on behalf of DATIA. "What about collection sites that are set up temporarily on-site? How can they be inspected after the fact? Who will inspect the sites and what training will they have received?"

Young says that SAMHSA received "many, many comments, and not one-page comments; we received 50-page comments" about the proposed changes to the drug-testing law. While the rule was initially scheduled to become final in October, Young said there is no date now set for release of a final version of the regulation.

For more information, contact:

  • Laura Shelton, Executive Director, Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA). E-mail: lshelton@wpa.org.
  • Leah Young, HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Parklawn Building Rm. 12-105, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857. Telephone: (301) 443-8956. E-mail: lyoung@samhsa.gov.