Benefits for police, fire disappear on Indian Reservation
When Kim Pound accepted the position of chief of police for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, part of the draw was that his salary and medical benefits were paid by the United States government. But after three years on the job, he said the promise of guaranteed benefits turned into a nightmare of unpaid medical bills.
"I noticed that the money was being taken out of my paycheck, and when my family or myself would go to the doctor, we were getting bills that the insurance company wasn't paying," said Pound.
- RELATED: Tribe Releases Statement
Pound now owes $14,000 in unpaid medical bills, he said, and the now former police chief isn't the only one who says this is happening. CBS 5 Investigates has learned that entire medical practices in the White Mountain area are turning away dozens of White Mountain Apache employees because the insurance policy is not paying the bills.
"I know many physicians did not get paid, and I know the hospital has quite a large outstanding amount of unpaid bills," said Dr. Peter Niemczyk, who stopped seeing tribal employees during the past year because of $15,000 he's owed in unpaid claims.
"There's hundreds, and potentially thousands, of people out there that have been employees of the White Mountain Apache Tribe that have been victims of fraud, theft, embezzlement. I don't know how far it goes," said Charles Croy, a former firefighter with the tribe, who now owes $16,000 in unpaid medical bills.
Several tribal employees who were scheduled to meet with CBS 5 Investigates backed out at the last minute, saying they feared they would be retaliated against.
"That money was taken out of my husband's paychecks, and I want to know where that money is and why our bills weren't paid," said one woman, who asked not to be identified because she was afraid her husband would lose his job.
CBS 5 Investigates called the tribal chairman's office three times, in an effort to find out what the problem is. Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe did not return our calls, so we met up with him outside his office.
"Who are these people? What are their names," asked Lupe, before referring the matter to his tribal attorney.
Salaries and benefits for police and firefighters on the Indian reservation are paid by federal tax money through an arrangement know as a 638 contract. The money flows through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribal government, and the BIA is in charge of making sure the money is spent the way it was intended to be spent.
Tuesday afternoon, the White Mountain Apache Tribe issued a statement in response to the CBS 5 Investigation. The statement read in part, "The White Mountain Apache Tribe is working diligently to address unpaid medical bills referenced in your report."
It goes on to read, "We are reviewing each claim to ensure that providers are not over-charging the Tribe or employees."
Employees who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates said they blame the BIA for not keeping track of the money.
"I believe the BIA is not holding them accountable," said Pound.
The director of the regional BIA office, located in Phoenix, said he was unaware there was a problem with benefits being paid.
"I haven't heard any of these complaints from any employees, and nobody that I've talked to has heard any of these complaints, including the superintendent of the agency," said Brian Bowker, the BIA's regional director.
"That's a lie. I've called numerous times," said Croy. Like the other employees and former employees who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates, Croy said he is getting tired of the excuses he's heard.
They said their physical and financial health is at stake and nobody in a position of power is doing anything about it.
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