Walz: White Earth, Leech Lake should not have pay back $29M used for opioid treatment

Mike Fairbanks.jpeg
Michael Fairbanks

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not explain that the recommendation from the governor first had to be approved by the state Legislature, which is the next step. It has been updated to reflect the right information. We regret the error.

Good news for the White Earth and Leech Lake nations: If Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has his way, they won’t be required to come up with $29 million to make up for a miscommunication by the state of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services sent shock waves through the reservations in 2019 when it notified tribal administrators that an "overpayment" had been made to some opioid treatment programs.

Both the White Earth Reservation and the Leech Lake Reservation were affected by this oversight, which totaled $29 million, according to a March 13 letter to tribal members from White Earth Tribal Chairman Michael Fairbanks.

State law requires the state to retrieve these overpayments from any entity that has been overpaid, Fairbanks said. But after a review of the situation, Gov. Tim Walz said that the tribes impacted should be held harmless and that neither the tribes, nor any of their employees, were at fault.


White Earth staff did exactly what they were supposed to do by reaching out to the Minnesota Department of Human Services for guidance, Fairbanks said.

“After the payment errors were identified, the (Tribal Council) and I went to work on multiple fronts to protect the nation's assets,” Fairbanks said in the letter, including: working with Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson to ensure a coordinated tribal response, collaborating with various White Earth programs and legal staff to develop the strongest possible negotiating position, and meeting multiple times with Walz, the state Department of Human Services, and state legislators to resolve the issue, Fairbanks said.

“Through this hard work, I am very pleased to report that Gov. Walz announced supplemental budget recommendations that includes the entire overpayment amount to both Leech Lake and White Earth. Meaning, White Earth and Leech Lake would not have to repay the overpayments made to the tribes,” Fairbanks said. “Today is a good day for the White Earth Nation.”

Last year, the state's nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor found that the state Department of Human Services overpaid Leech Lake and White Earth by more than $29 million between 2014 and 2019 for medicine-assisted opioid treatments, according to an Oct. 30 Forum News Service story by Sarah Mearhoff and Dana Ferguson.

The state Department of Human Services manages Minnesota’s Medicaid program, and it authorized the tribes to bill for in-office opioid treatment services when the medications were administered at home.

That caused excess Medicaid money to flow into Indian Health Service facilities that administer the treatments.

There have been no allegations that the extra money was misappropriated or misused. The excess funds were used to help people recover from opioid addiction on the reservations, and the take-home, medication-assisted treatments had a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of members who'd been able to overcome addictions, said Danielle Stevens, a behavioral health assistant director with the White Earth Nation, who was quoted in the Oct. 30 story.

The Minnesota Legislature needs to approve the governor's budget recommendation before it becomes law.

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