- By Darren Thompson
Last week, the Navajo Nation announced it was launching “Operation Rainbow Bridge” to locate and place its citizens caught up in a widespread insurance scam that the state’s officials say has taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s Medicaid program.
More than 200 hundred people attended the forum at Memorial Hall at the Steele Indian School Park, where they heard from officials on the steps being taken to assist people needing behavioral health services. Officials said they are organized to assist people in finding help at a legitimate behavioral health provider in “good standing” or returning home to their families on the reservation.
“We are here because of the large-scale humanitarian crisis that has been affecting our communities for the last several years,” said Director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations Jason Chavez at the open forum meeting. “For years, fraudulent Medicaid providers have exploited Tribal communities for their own financial gain.
They target the most vulnerable people, offering them a false promise that they would be given food, housing and access to treatment in a group living home. Instead, they are left in these facilities without proper access to healthcare or services.”
More than 100 behavioral health centers, also known as sober living homes, were suspended last week pending an investigation by Governor Katie Hobbs. As a result, many other payments have been frozen throughout the state’s healthcare system, revealing a fragile system that has been taken advantage of by bad actors shuffling American Indian people to the urban cities of Arizona to enroll them in the state’s American Indian Health Plan.
Attorneys from the state’s Attorney General’s (AG) office announced a new division investigating and prosecuting actors in the insurance scandal announced last week. Since 2019, the state AG’s office has seized or recovered more than $70 million in relation to the scam.
“We have received over 60 plus notifications credible allegations of fraud since we started investigations,” said the AG’s Health Care Fraud & Abuse Section Chief Counsel Steve Duplissis on Wednesday. “We have special agents working to tirelessly to try to prevent this. Investigations and prosecutions are occurring and will continue to occur.”
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said that Operation Rainbow Bridge will provide the services victims of the scam were initially promised.
“We’ve been on the ground since last Monday, and we want to make sure that we catch them and transition them on this Rainbow Beauty—this hózhó—to make sure they are moved into the services that they came here to receive if they were cognizant of why they were brought down here,” Branch sid. “We want to make sure that if they want to go home, we want to care for them from the point we receive them to their doorstep.”
After the speaker portion concluded, community members were invited to speak. Some spoke of their experiences escaping sober living facilities and feeling helpless. Others spoke of corrupt facility owners enrolling people from the streets in the state’s healthcare plan to house them in a newly purchased home. Some said they were mistreated and expected to accept substandard living conditions, including living beyond the dwelling capacity of many facilities.
Branch drew a parallel between the cruel scheme that has targeted vulnerable Native community members and the destruction of Indigenous peoples by European settlers.
“Our people have been trafficked since contact,” Branch said.
The Navajo Nation’s Operation Rainbow Bridge is located within the Phoenix Indian Center. For more information or to get help with healthcare services, people are encouraged to dial 2-1-1, then press option 7.
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