Opinion: Answers about drug clearinghouse queries

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Cross-border carriers with drivers who are subject to U.S. drug and alcohol testing requirements are also subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse program.

Related online user accounts can now be established, and registration will be needed to access the Clearinghouse once it’s implemented on Jan. 6.

But the information will come at a cost.

Motor carriers — including Canada-based carriers subject to the U.S. drug and alcohol testing requirements – will need to pay a fee when querying the clearinghouse to learn about a driver’s possible U.S. DOT drug and alcohol testing violations, evaluation or treatment, return-to-duty testing, and completion of follow-up testing.

A query is an electronic check that’s used to determine if current or prospective employees are prohibited from performing safety-sensitive functions, such as operating a commercial motor vehicle, due to unresolved drug and alcohol program violations. Limited queries satisfy annual requirements, and full queries include all pre-employment queries.

If further details are required after performing a limited query, a carrier can perform a full version without incurring an extra fee.

Each query will cost US $1.25 per driver. Carriers must also purchase queries before a request, either as a set number (a bundle) or as an unlimited plan. The bundles will not expire.

High-volume clearinghouse users will be charged a single payment of US $24,000 for unlimited queries, but an unlimited plan of this nature will expire after 12 months.

As of Sept. 30, the FMCSA has given carriers and drivers the go-ahead to start registering for their portal accounts, and carriers can now begin to select query plans. Carriers should be sure to select a bundle that’s large enough to cover all the drivers they currently employ.

Not every piece of information carries a fee, however. If any information about a driver is entered into the clearinghouse during the 30 days immediately following a carrier’s pre-employment query, FMCSA will notify the carrier at no charge. And there is no fee for registering for the clearinghouse or uploading data.

Here are some key pointers on how to prepare for the Jan. 6 start date.

  • Start registering — Make sure you, your drivers (subject to U.S. DOT testing), and service agents are registered with the clearinghouse.
  • Purchase a query bundle — You’ll first need to determine how many queries you’ll require.
  • Be sure to update your policy – Carriers will need to update drug and alcohol testing policies to accommodate the new clearinghouse responsibilities.
  • Ensure your drivers enroll, but be careful — Drivers will need to sign up for access to the clearinghouse portal and authorize carriers to view their information. Just remember, however, that only those drivers subject to U.S. DOT drug and alcohol testing are subject to queries. Drivers only need a portal account for full queries. In other words, this only affects drivers applying for a safety-sensitive function with a U.S. DOT-regulated carrier, and those existing drivers who have a record in the database.
  • Communicate responsibilities to all involved – This includes drivers subject to the clearinghouse; your medical review officer (MRO) and substance abuse professional (SAP); and your company’s safety, operations and human resources departments that may be involved in reporting violations or running queries.

Planning is the key, not only for the clearinghouse registration and policy changes, but also for the fees that you’ll incur because of them. Without a plan, you run the risk of not being prepared when the time comes.

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Heather Ness is the editor of transport operations at J.J.Keller and Associates. Contact her at transporteditors@jjkeller.com.

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