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Bill tries to deter sober living facilities preying on Indigenous people

The State of Arizona says it believes hundreds of millions of dollars could have been stolen in an effort to fraudulently get payments from a state program
Posted at 5:38 PM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 19:38:26-05

PHOENIX — After some Arizona sober living facilities were accused of defrauding the state, in part by preying on Native Americans, one state senator has introduced a plan to offer support to vulnerable people who were taken advantage of.

In May 2023, Governor Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Hayes announced that potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in funding had been taken from a state-run program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), by sober living facilities that overinflated or directly lied about their level of care for patients.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Native Americans had been targeted by such facilities at a disproportionate rate, in some cases even bringing in Indigenous people from other states. Navajo Nation leaders say the majority of those Indigenous people were from their reservation and had been convinced to leave their homes to go to the facilities with the promise of food, shelter, and care.

In some cases, family members of the patients were not notified that their loved one had been taken to the Arizona sober living facilities, even fearing their family members had gone missing.

While members of the Navajo Nation were largely targeted, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley says the alleged scheme had had an impact on all 22 tribes within Arizona.

Curley compares the situation with the native boarding schools of the 1900s.

"This is a different form of exploitation - like 50, 80 years later," she said. "It's a different type, but the same effect, the same traumas."

Curley says she believes Navajo people were targeted because of the stereotype that they are more likely to be dependent on drugs and alcohol.

"There's an outcry out in our communities saying, 'Why isn't the state doing anything?'" said Curley.

Now, the state may finally be doing something.

Senate Bill 1655, sponsored by Arizona state Senator Theresa Hathalie, a Democrat representing District 7, seeks to discourage the sober living home fraud.

It would severely increase the penalty for violations, from $500 to $10,000. The money collected from the civil penalties would be shared directly with the people targeted by going into a new fund, the Indigenous Peoples Protection Revolving Fund, which would "support resiliency and healing of indigenous peoples in Arizona."

"We're really hoping that the state leadership listens to our Navajo people," Curley said. "Even though we are four to five hours away, but it doesn't mean that we [should] be taken for granted. We're crying out for justice for a lot of our people back at home."

Curley said there has been little pushback to the overall plan in the Senate, and there have been recommendations that would take it even further. She says technical details are still being worked out.

"We just want that foundation, that there has to be some type of deterrent," she said.

Curley said the issue has started to trickle into other states, including New Mexico, and even as far away as Montana.

The bill was introduced at the beginning of February. It has not yet been voted on in committee.