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AMERIND Risk Is Meeting More Tribal Insurance Needs

AMERIND Risk Is Meeting More Tribal Insurance Needs

Designed by 400 tribes, for tribes, in 1986, this sovereign, tax-exempt nonprofit provides the same insurance coverage at roughly 10-15 percent less than what most mainstream insurance companies charge tribes.

Culturally sensitive and Native owned and operated, it’s based on the Santa Ana Pueblo in Bernalillo, New Mexico. It’s privy to the unique challenges of tribal entities. And it possesses the legal authority to uphold specific cultural intricacies that most standard insurance companies simply do not understand—like the ability to include traditional medicine men in its workers’ compensation program.

It prides itself on keeping money in Indian country and reinvesting in tribal communities.

And this not-for-profit risk pool/insurance carrier, AMERIND Risk, is continually finding new ways to innovate, expand and meet the needs of our people. Still, AMERIND Risk has tapped less than 10 percent of the insurance market in Indian country. “In the insurance market space, tribes spend half a billion dollars across Indian country, AMERIND provides $40 million of that market,” AMERIND Risk Chief Executive Officer Derek Valdo, a member of the Acoma Pueblo, told Indian Country Today Media Network. This means 92 percent of the insurance market is controlled by non-Tribal owned insurance companies.

“Our small, Indian-owned company has been operating for 29 years. Tribes don’t realize just how much more control and flexibility they have by buying from themselves [within Indian country] than sending their money off to corporate America,” stated Valdo.

AMERIND Risk is a sovereign entity and thus not limited by state rules, laws and regulation—or the “one size fits all” approach. State workers’ compensation fails to provide tribal protection, and instead pays claim benefits based only upon what is required by a state law.

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“We’re a Section 17 Corporation. Basically what Section 17 does is it makes AMERIND a sovereign entity like the tribes that incorporated us, and it gives us the same tax status, so we’re tax exempt,” Valdo told ICTMN. “Thus we don’t pass those taxes on to our tribal clients,” making AMERIND Risk’s cost of operation typically 10-15 percent less than traditional insurance companies.

According to Dennis McCann, Chief Operating Officer, the benefits of sovereign protection through AMERIND Risk are most apparent in its workers’ compensation program.

“We deliver a tribal workers’ compensation product to tribes that gives them the ability to leverage their sovereignty and solid benefits, but outside of the state system,” McCann said. “A lot of times tribes don’t realize they subjected themselves to state workers’ comp. But we’re outside of [state] law. We give them the ability to level out the cost of insurance over time.”

It’s a way for a tribe to insulate and protect itself, Valdo explained. “On the attorney side, AMERIND protects tribes when they get sued through general liability coverage. Our tribal lawyers utilize tribal codes and laws to protect them.” McCann adds, “They also have the ability to practice in tribal courts. We’re not afraid to handle claims in tribal court. We do it all the time.”

According to Valdo, this is more relevant than ever since the Supreme Court ruling in State of Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community. While the high court ruled in favor of federal jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty, Justice Kagan clarified that “Michigan could bring suit against tribal officials or employees [rather than the Tribe itself] seeking an injunction.”

The clarification set a dangerous precedent for states to control tribes through their employees and vendors, Valdo stressed.

“The Supreme Court in the Bay Mills Case laid the framework for states and regulators on how to get around tribal sovereignty to control the behavior of tribes,” said Valdo, additionally pointing to unions and labor relations boards that try to influence Indian country and push their rules on tribes.

“Tribes are sovereign; you can’t sue them. But you can sue everyone else that works for them, and their suppliers and vendors,” Valdo said.

Unlike state workers’ compensation, AMERIND’s coverage protects employees under tribal law. AMERIND’s workers’ compensation program was introduced in 2004. In the last two years, under Valdo’s helm, the program has seen almost 200 percent growth. “It’s really taking off,” Valdo said. “Tribes are finding it in their best interest to take control.”

And Valdo is particularly interested in keeping work in Indian country. “I know that when $1 stays in tribal communities, it grows six to eight times,” Valdo said.

That’s one reason he touts the company’s direct repair program, which helps bring business to tribal and Native-owned companies. “Typically, insurance companies just write checks,” Valdo said. “We developed a direct repair program.”

“Because Indian country is so rural in nature and not a lot of companies want to drive an hour to replace damaged property, we developed the direct repair program. If you use one of our vetted contractors, we will waive your deductible and do the work directly for you, the client. In 2014 we have spent about $2 million using Native-owned companies to repair Native properties,” states Valdo.

AMERIND also contributes money directly back into Indian country. “I’m fortunate my board of directors reinvests $450,000 annually in non-profit organizations like the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Finance Officers Association, the Native American Human Resources Association, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the Native American Rights Fund,” and more. “We give back to Indian associations that help Indian country. All our competitors together, do not give back as much, to entities that support tribes. We’re more than just an insurance company.”

Despite all its unique advantages as a tribal-owned insurance company, AMERINDhas plenty of room to grow. “Tribes have multiple enterprises from government contracting to casinos to seed stores to tech and communications. There’s a whole multitude of enterprises within Indian country. We’re continually evolving and developing innovative, specialized coverages with the capabilities to insure these diverse entities,” McCann said. And the recent addition of Chief Financial Officer Casey Riddle, a member of the Osage Nation, to AMERIND’s executive team brings new talents and perspective to the company. Riddle previously served as the director of finance at the Muscogee Creek Nation’s River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, Okla. Prior to that, he helped open the Quapaw Tribe’s Downstream Casino & Resort in Joplin, Mo. where he managed their financial packages as their director of finance.

At AMERIND, Riddle is focused on tailoring insurance packages to meet the very specific needs of tribal governments and businesses. “I step back from the insurance-only perspective and listen to the finance industry professionals,” Riddle told ICTMN. “I interact with them more on a pure level—I help find out what they need, and work to mold the program with them to achieve their goals, lower their costs, and improve their bottom line. Having been in the industry for so many years, I understand hinge points. I understand why there’s a problem, because I’ve worked through those processes.”

As AMERIND keeps growing to meet its client needs, Valdo wants to drill home the importance of putting money back into Indian country. “I went to Stanford. I wanted to be an engineer and work in Florida at NASA,” Valdo said. “Fortunately, fifteen years ago, I started working at a strong Indian-owned insurance company-AMERIND Risk.” Two and a half years ago, the board of directors selected Valdo, based on his leadership merits, to be the first Native CEO in the history of AMERIND Risk. “Our annual revenue is $40 million, and it’s growing by 12.5 percent year over year. I’m very fortunate to be a benefactor of Indian people believing in themselves. Let’s put Indians in charge of Indian business.”