The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,
but rather in her ability to repair her faults
Alexis de Tocqueville
Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers (HJPCVs) was officially founded in March of 2012. It evolved over the course of decades, as more and more Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who felt medically displaced and bureaucratically stonewalled, reached out to one another for help and advice. Many had worked alone or in small groups to petition the Peace Corps, the US Department of Labor (USDOL), US senators and congresspersons, correspondents such as Bill Moyers and Anderson Cooper, Sargent Shriver - our first director in the 1960s, and even First Lady Hillary Clinton, as well as others to help us obtain the medical and disability benefits we were promised.
By the mid-2000s we gained some momentum, and became more hopeful. Once again we were disappointed. After we became a formal organization, Carrie Hessler-Radelet (past Peace Corps Deputy Director and current Director) heard some of our hardships in the Fall of 2012 and implemented some improvements at our recommendation. You can view some of the changes that Director Hessler-Radelet made as of August 2014 here. This is a reasonable start, but more needs to be done.
Historically, the Peace Corps has had no one specifically dedicated to help us navigate the intricacies of the US Department of Labor, which does not adequately address the natural of Peace Corps health or disability issues. Many of us who returned from the Peace Corps sick and injured over the past 53 years feel we should have had the support of our agency. Hundreds, if not thousands of sick RPCVs fell through the cracks. Most of given up in despair and stopped trying to obtain the benefits to which they were entitled.
The problem is that the USDOL is not set up to accommodate persons in temporary federal positions who are not actually employees of the agency. Peace Corps Volunteers are not employees. Rather, we are volunteers for the federal government who are paid a stipend. The USDOL was created to care for injured paid federal employees throughout the entire federal government system, and then place them on a temporary disability status.
What We Need:
We need the support of the press to raise awareness of these issues. We need the Peace Corps to acknowledge that these problems exist. We need the US Department of Labor to make changes to the system. We need congress to change legislation.
Our Coalition's Early Years, 1980s to 2007:
Before the internet existed, sick volunteers were completely on their own to navigate the system using savings of their families and friends to simply survive and pay medical bills.
In the 1980s an RPCV , Ed George, founded a ranch in Northern Arizona where sick RPCVS could live while they recovered. He actively worked with one of our co-founders, a lawyer, to work with Peace Corps to make policy changes. Subsequently, in the early years of the internet we created listservs, formed a Yahoo group and then from about 2004-2009 a group called "Injured While Serving" created by Felicia Kenney.
This was the only way most of us had been able to receive actual information about how to navigate and complete the myriad paperwork; and the sole place to gain moral support and emotional understanding for the challenge it is to have served our country and be left sick and poor and without guidance upon our return. We felt dismissed by the Peace Corps.
The U.S. government promised (by law) to provide for us in the event of illness when we joined the Peace Corps. At times our physical suffering was less than our suffering from fighting a bureaucracy that repeatedly failed us.
Renewed Efforts and Setbacks in 2007:
In 2007, a formal group of us wrote to US senators asking for help but received little response. This is a letter we sent to Senator Judd Gregg, Chris Dodd and others. At about that same time, the Peace Corps Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with USDOL claims to ensure that none of us were conducting fraudulent activity. While some of us were intensively investigated, the final published OIG report showed that of the 1,300 open FECA claims, few were fraudulent. Many of us felt violated by being intensely investigated by the agency that should have been advocating for us against the USDOL, which was often negligent in covering our bills.
Our repeated attempts to petition Peace Corps for the implementation of an Ombudsman or other person to work on our behalf were also denied. At this point many of us felt defeated and we disbanded the Google group due to exhaustion and disappointment.
Advances Through The Kate Puzey Act:
Early in 2009, a group of brave survivors of physical and sexual violence formed a coalition known as First Response Action. Their diligent efforts resulted in the creation of the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act (H.R. 2337; S. 1280) in November 2011, which we all hope is resulting in positive changes. Some of their personal stories may been read in this powerful New York Times article or viewed in this excerpt from part 1 of a piece aired on 20/20 in January, 2011.
Their efforts have brought improvements in the area of safety, yet they feel that more needs to be done. Their July 31, 2013 "Report Card" gave Peace Corps a grade of "C" on implemented improvements.
Thanks to their initiative we regained our energy to work again for positive change. Many of us are not victims of violent or sexual crimes. Unlike assault survivors, we were not just at risk “while in the field” but also here in our own country upon our return due to an inability to get care for ongoing medical problems or disability because of byzantine bureaucracies.
We want to continue to help other RPCVs and to push Peace Corps and other areas of government for the help we deserve. However, we too are working to get well and dealing with the stresses imposed by illness and poverty and cannot do it all. Please contact us if you feel you can help or want to share your story with us.
In 2013 we conducted an extensive survey completed by 7,500 RPCVs with the help of the National Peace Corps Association's Peace Corps Connect and routed our findings to Acting Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler Radelet, along with a list of improvements we felt necessary. Thankfully, she has heard us and some of her changes are being implemented and are listed here.
In June 2014 we became a member group of the National Peace Corps Association. This provides us with added support, connections to a wider readership and more leverage in advocating for improvements by both Congress and Peace Corps.
In June 2014 Carrie Hessler-Radelet was finally officially confirmed by the Senate as Peace Corps Director after serving as Acting Director for two and a half years.
Improvements Still Needed:
We feel that the for the Peace Corps to be the great agency that Sargent Shriver and JFK envisioned, it must take care of those of us who have served and fallen ill or become injured. Major institutional and Congressional policy changes and a method of monitoring the Peace Corps and USDOL are necessary to ensure long-term accountability and adherence to improved policy. Some recommendations we have are as follows:
Create a legislative bill and/or permanent policy changes to institutionalize improvements and metrics to ensure Peace Corps compliance. These will include some of the following issues:
- Increase Federal Pay Scale so that those who are disabled will have a livable wage
- Work for FECA reform so that it better serves the needs of RPCVs
- Dispose of the three-year time frame for filing for a health issue, as some acquired health problems do not manifest or become serious immediately
- Extend non-competitive eligibility for those whose health improves so they can re-enter the federal work force
- Provide health insurance or contribute payment toward Affordable Care Act insurance to those who become disabled
- Hire staff/department at Peace Corps to specifically liaison between PC and USDOL.
- Improve communication between the USDOL and Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), the agency that processes USDOL medical payments.
- Ensure that anti-malarial prophylaxis is given according to FDA guidelines, after appropriately and extensively informing the volunteer of the potential side effects of the medication. Volunteers should not be forced to take any medication they feel is unsafe
- Increase and improve mental health services in the field
- Improve dental care in the field and ensure that there are providers in the US that will accept FECA/USDOL claims
- Shift burden of proof for secondary health effects from primary health issue from the volunteer to the Peace Corps
- Require that Congress request a Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the US Department of Labor and commission an independent review of the Peace Corps medical system every 5 years
- Create an independent Ombudsperson to mediate between Volunteers and Peace Corps and US Department of Labor
- Form metrics for ensuring that PC provides adequate health care to all
- Nancy E. Tongue
- Felicia Kenney
- Howard Graham, Attorney
- Kevin Clark