BILLINGS — It’s a new phenomenon happening in Montana: Tribal members waiting at the airport for family members to return home on the Phoenix flight. When they touch down, many are still fighting for their sobriety after getting caught up inAriziona’s elaborate sober living home scam, targeting Montana tribal members.
It’s the same story, but on this day, it’s a new tribe being targeted. Four Northern Cheyenne members landed in Billings with a two-hour drive ahead to Ashland.
“I'm not going to lie, it is definitely disheartening. I wanted this program to be the real thing,” says Chad Hagen, a Northern Cheyenne victim from Ashland.
He says a fraudulent sober-living home bought him and his girlfriend Arianne a one-way flight to Phoenix with a promise of recovery in a 90-day program and a ticket home. What they got was much different. The home has been suspended by the state of Arizona and there was no return ticket.
"You’re supposed to get 72 hours of detox,” says Hagen. “I went there and they knew I was high, and yet still they didn’t provide any detox. They literally told me to just sleep it off.”
A dangerous proposition after 11 years of heavy IV drug use and demoralizing to a couple trying to turn their lives around.
“I know the opportunity to relapse is so much more prevalent now here, I'm almost scared to go home,” says Hagen.
Hagen and his girlfriend are just two of the more than 8,000 people investigators say were victimized as part of a widespread Arizona Medicaid scam. State officials say fraudulent sober-living homes lured Indigenous people to the state, where they were provided free housing but no treatment. Those fake providers then allegedly billed for services not provided, up to $1,300 per person per day, collecting millions in Medicaid payments from the state.
“There’s no classes. We’re not being rehabilitated. We’re being shoved into a corner and forgotten about,” says Hagen.
Arizona is now suspending those fraudulent homes, leaving tribal members homeless and often high, as many homes allowed drinking and drugs as an incentive to keep bodies in beds and collect dollars.
“They are given drugs and alcohol, sometimes they are beaten, sometimes they are raped. This is a new kind of trauma they are going to experience on top of why they have trauma to begin with,” says Reva Stewart, founder of the activist group Stolen People, Stolen Benefits.
Stolen People, Stolen Benefits is a Phoenix grassroots effort that helped send this latest group of Montanans home. Jeri Long is also a volunteer and a veteran with a heart of service. They both walk the streets looking for Montana's missing people.
“If they do shut down, what they do is contact another group home and say ‘I have 10 natives here. I'll sell them to you for this much per person and then you can have them. So that’s part of the reason they are being taken from house to house to house to house,” explains Jeri Long, a volunteer with Stolen People, Stolen Benefits.
Stewart and Long confirmed to MTN that unlicensed sober-living homes in Arizona are collaborating to keep Montana tribal members and other tribal members from across the United States missing.
Hagen and his girlfriend managed to escape the human trade and homelessness, but she came back to Montana with a severe grease burn. She says the home did nothing to help after her cooking accident. She had to find her own way to the ER. Even so, she feels fortunate to make it back home alive. Something that can’t be said for all.
MTN News reached out for comment to the Arizona sober-living home where Hagen and his girlfriend were staying in Arizona. The home did not respond before deadline.
For an entire list of sober living homes suspended by the state of Arizona to this date, click here.
Montana’s Blackfeet Nation recently declared a public health state of emergency. The Blackfeet Nation requests that any individuals returning home should immediately cancel their Arizona ACHHHS (Medicaid) benefits, change their residency back to Montana, and put a credit alert and freeze on the three credit reporting agencies. They also advise relatives to check on any family members who are in Arizona receiving treatment to make sure they are in a legitimate facility.
MTN has reached out to Montana’s congressional delegation as well as state officials regarding the scam. You can read their comments here.
Stewart with Stolen People, Stolen Benefits, has an Amazon wishlist under Reva J Stewart for those wanting to help provide water and hygiene kits to tribal members on the street who are in 100+ temperatures in Phoenix. Stolen People, Stolen Benefits also has a GoFundMe page to help support plane and bus tickets to get tribal members home.