Autumn Nelson shared her struggle with alcohol addiction back in the spring. Members of her Blackfeet Nation community suggested a rehab center in Phoenix, even buying her a one-way ticket. However, after a month, she was ousted for questioning the inadequate staff-to-patient ratio and lack of Native American personnel.
“It was sudden—I found myself in the scorching 108-degree Phoenix heat,” Nelson recounted. “I felt scared and lost.”
Nelson, now back on the Blackfeet reservation, is one of many Native Americans who have fallen prey to Phoenix-area fraudsters. These scams, which often rendered clients homeless while benefiting swindlers, have cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars.
Most of these fraudulent charges were submitted through the American Indian Health Program, a Medicaid plan allowing direct billing for services to Indigenous individuals. These scams have raised concerns beyond Arizona, drawing the attention of Montana’s Senator Jon Tester and Governor Greg Gianfonte.
Governor Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes have intensified the investigation into fraudulent Medicaid billing, joined by the FBI and U.S. Attorney General’s Office. Tester has urged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to join the probe.
Non-medical transport companies also played a role, luring Native Americans to fake programs. Arizona State Senator Theresa Hatathlie and the New Mexico Attorney General have urged caution against accepting transportation from strangers for rehab centers.
The Navajo and Blackfeet Nations declared public health emergencies to aid affected members. Nelson, along with others, are pushing for legitimate programs and helping their communities.
Since COVID-19, scams increased due to relaxed rules. Dr. John Molina of Native Health in Phoenix highlighted the addiction’s roots in generational trauma.
“This goes back to colonization and exploiting Natives,” Molina explained.
Fraudster Johnwick Nathan faces charges of illegal Medicaid billing. Other cases involve enormous sums—Diana Marie Moore pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering, raking in over $22 million.
Authorities have suspended Medicaid payments to the center Nelson attended and hundreds of others. AHCCCS implemented stricter controls, including site visits and background checks for high-risk providers.
The impact of these scams extends far. Phoenix-based Native Americans faced homelessness as centers shut down. Many struggled with addiction and lacked support.
Reva Stewart and Native American women formed an online network to find missing individuals. Stewart recalled drivers stopping outside the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, offering shelter. She engaged after her cousin vanished into one such vehicle.
While some stories end well, others don’t. Raquel Moody, Hopi, and Apache, recalled a home where alcohol was permitted. Laura McGee, a Blackfeet member, sought her brother, who had disappeared in Phoenix. McGee now assists families, joining hands with others like Stewart.
Addiction recovery on reservations remains challenging due to limited resources. The Navajo Nation faces numerous alcohol-related arrests, even though sales are prohibited on tribal land.
While struggles persist, individuals like Nelson are determined to stand up. “That earlier situation traumatized me,” Nelson said, “But now it has encouraged me to stand up.”