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The Problem

What was it about the Peace Corps? About Ethiopia,
That has meant so much in our lives? 
The answer is, I believe, that once a long time ago,
when we were young and believed we could make a difference, 
we flew to the Horn of Africa and touched this world firsthand,
touched it where it burns,
and we have never healed.

John Coyne (RPCV Ethiopia 1962-64)

Peace Corps Volunteers answer their country’s call to service, often facing harsh or difficult conditions in foreign countries. Many return with unusual, hard to treat, life-altering diseases, injuries and traumas that the Peace Corps did not anticipate when it was founded in 1961. Far too many have fallen through the cracks. Some have struggled for years to obtain healthcare or disability benefits. Others have lost careers and have been left destitute and uninsurable. Many have given up.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports (19912012) indicate that approximately 10-30% of all volunteers develop health issues resulting from service. Our 2013 survey of nearly 8,000 volunteers supports this evidence. Given that approximately 225,000 have served as of January 2017, these numbers are significant. Health Justice and its predecessor organizations have personally served hundreds of volunteers. We need congressional support and/or policy change to ensure that sick and injured volunteers get prompt and enduring medical care, both in the field and upon their return, for as long as needed and to be ensured adequate disability income when necessary.

Testimonials From RPCVs About Being Medically and Bureaucratically Displaced

  • My condition left me jobless, homeless, physically disabled, and in pain. I'm sure there are many more of you out there. Luckily I didn't have kids or other family responsibilities, so I've had TIME to waste on the system, but what about the others?

  • I would love to be asked to give my personal case history… that I lived on $100 a month, got sick and repeatedly asked for my PCMO’s (Peace Corps Medical Officers) help to do more tests and was told there was nothing more to do, when there was and now I get to live with a (...) disease for the rest of my life. So, the OIG (Office of Inspector General during GAO of RPCVs) wants to know if PC is spending the PC is spending its money appropriately? The answer is an obvious NO!

  • I don’t get responses from the DOL anymore. My case has dropped off the face of the earth. During my initial 2 years of surgery USDOL/OWCP paid for everything. But after there had been a lapse in treatment they no longer paid my bills, nor would they answer my calls. The bottom line was that I ended up paying the bills myself to save my credit. My letters received no responses. After trying so much I just gave up.

  • I was medically separated from [Africa] after 3 years because I became very ill. To date I am no closer to finding out the cause of my illness. My experience dealing with the PC Post Service Medical Unit has been one of the worst of my life. Can anyone on this listserve help?

  • I would be happy to share my experience with whoever needs to hear about all this.  I think OWCP needs to change.  As a taxpayer I applaud their goal of rooting out fraudulent claims, but I don't think they have to make the experience miserable for everyone else to do so.  They do a disservice to those of us who sacrificed our health and careers to serve our country.  And I think Peace Corps has a responsibility to be our advocates.  They promised to take care of us, but they pretty much abandoned me once my plane set down in [the US] in the winter of 1986.  I am still sacrificing for Peace Corps and my country.

  • Once one is medically evacuated the situation becomes quite grim. You are suddenly a pariah because they seem to assume that you're trying to take advantage of their system. That's not true for me; I just want to get well and go back to work. They are far from being proactive about diagnosis and treatment; instead it's like pulling teeth to get approval to see specialists.

  • I've lived off my savings the past year, so my funds are essentially depleted - I stayed with my family trying to get medical help …, so finding paid work (anything) was very hard, and my Peace Corps "salary" was too low to qualify me for any unemployment benefits. I continue to pay for my CorpsCare health insurance, but they won't pay any claims per the Peace Corps condition because it started during service, so I'm stuck with FECA.

  • I am considered 100% disabled, lovely label, isn’t it. The main problem I see is that the neurosurgeon that needs to fill out this report is not thrilled with filling in a definite date for period of disability - as no one can say how long this will last, or what treatment might prove effective. Not to mention the difficulty of even getting in to see him. It's discouraging. Everything seems to take months at best to process and, while I currently have enough money to live on, watching that negative cash flow is scary, to say the least - and living in Limbo is equally disheartening. I don't feel that I can plan my future, or that I have much control over my life….. “We are the forgotten, burning in the streets, hands out, screaming: ‘This is not all I am; I had something else in mind to do today.”

  • I was in the Peace Corps …  It was an enormously rewarding experience… I came home in the winter via a series of hospitals…  I was in a pretty bad way…No one from Peace Corps ever explained that I was being moved from their organization into the care of the Dept. of Labor, let alone how the system was supposed to work…I feel like I have been playing catch-up for the two decades since then… Before I ever left the hospital it was obvious I was going to have to rethink my direction in life.  I entered graduate school … while still being fed intravenously.  No one ever told me I was eligible for Federal funding for retraining…I had to figure out the medical reimbursement system on my own….. Sometime after I moved … my compensation payments mysteriously stopped…In the end, it took the intervention of my Senator's office to determine that (1) I had not received adequate notice that my compensation was being discontinued and why it was discontinued, and (2) that it shouldn't have been discontinued in the first place… It is apparent to me that there are very few OWCP personnel who are competent to perform this calculation.

  • I returned from (overseas). I'm in (the US) now and getting really frustrated with OWCP. For having a great experience, I came home in rough shape. I have active [disease of a rare form] and the PC can't seem to get it through their heads that just because my chest x-ray is clear doesn't mean I'm healthy. I also have permanent liver damage from the original bout of [medication]. The response I got was basically "sucks to be you." It took 3 weeks to get a call back from OMS ) Office of Medical Services) and that was only after I left a message saying I was going to infect all of greater LA with [my disease] if they didn't do something. Right now I'm stuck and so am dealing with free clinics and a county hospital for medicine and surgery. Will this hurt my chances of getting my claim approved? I've gotten a lot of stuff for free, cuz, well, I'm broke. Willing to go public.

  • I'm assuming that our Congressional inquiries are dead….. I'm not sure where to go from here. Any ideas?  For example, I'm going to submit to Senator Dodd's office a recent letter from Michelle K. Brooks, the Director of Peace Corps' Office of Congressional Relations, in which she states: " ... Given that […..’s] claim is an accepted claim, the Peace Corps cannot provide any further assistance.  At this point in the process, we can only recommend that he follow up directly with DOL." This is precisely the type of brush-off that members of our group have gotten from Peace Corps over and over again.  (I realize that I'm preaching to the choir!)…. We need to act--and act now.

  • … It's unfortunate that Peace Corps refuses to advocate for those of us who suffer at the hands of OWCP. Peace Corps is the client agency and could have a powerful influence over the USDOL. 

  • I may ask my parents for financial help…. I have dread thinking of dealing with the Peace Corps again…  The doctors wanted more tests and the PC didn’t approve anything.  I was so disappointed to have to end my service that way. That is why I am avoiding the new FECA claim. Any advice on opening this can of worms again? 

  • If your condition isn't one that the Peace Corps wants to talk about (like the long term side effects of taking Lariam), then they do a good job of preventing injured volunteers from getting compensation.

  • I am also frustrated, and somewhat puzzled, by the lack of response that we've gotten from most of the Senators and representatives we've contacted. Why are they so reluctant to take on the Executive Branch? Are RPCVs such lowly beings that we don't even make a blip on the radar?

  • It has been very rare indeed that I have been told that I have been approved for coverage. It was up to me to call and find out for myself.  I have rarely gotten anything in writing saying I was authorized and once, when they changed claims examiners on me, my new examiner said she couldn't find any evidence that I was still authorized for medical compensation.  I realized that I had nothing in my possession but my phone notes to prove that I had authorization. Needless to say, this is not a very empowering position. 

  • I was stabbed two days after swearing in so my settling allowance was a pittance), homeless, jobless, physically disabled, and still unfinished with my education (I was using PC for credit to my master's program as I was a master's international student). (No doctor will take me where I live because they won't bill OWCP -- I have to drive 6 hours to be seen -- I may still require another surgery).

  • The running commentary of this group should discourage anyone from signing up.  It is also a sad statement of the consideration given to RPCVs and any responsibility the government feels towards us.  My left retina has been destroyed by infections from service overseas.  It has taken me years to find a doctor who understands the disease and the epidemiology of it, to state for sure what the relationship is to PC service.  Too bad, "untimely filing" says the OWCP. 

  • I was disabled in the Peace Corps and twenty years later am fighting for every little scrap of help I can get from OWCP. I posted a response but didn't know if you would see it all these months later.  Actually, I was excited to see someone with the same problems (not that I would wish them on anyone of course.)

  • My case is going nowhere.  The Boston Area Office will not respond to communications from me or my Congressman.  My congressional caseworker told me yesterday that she is "stumped" and has no idea what to do next.  After speaking with her, I called both of my Senators and OWCP in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to stir the pot, so to speak.  I'm not sure if anything will come from my afternoon of phone calls, but I thought it was worth a try.”

  • It appears that OWCP will try anything to avoid contact with claimants and their Congressional Representatives.  Playing politics is yet another approach the agency will use to remain unapproachable.

  • I understand your frustrations with Peace Corps administration.  I spent 18 months in Africa where I became quite ill with a number of tropical conditions in addition to being forced to take mefloquine.  The medical staff were grossly incompetent on a good day and downright malicious if you tried to get any meaningful attention. I don't know if my concerns are the same as yours but I will be happy to compare notes and I'm not afraid to speak out.

  • Maybe I'm a slow learner but it wasn't until I received the OIG's letter [Office of the Inspector General hired by the PC to investigate volunteers receiving OWCP] that it dawned on me why no one in Peace Corps seems to be willing to help RPCVs with their OWCP claims:  It isn't in the agency's best interest, at least from a fiscal point of view…  If we could get RPCVs from 10 different states to sign a letter to that House Committee and we cc'd the letter to the corresponding Senate Committee and each of the RPCVs' Senators and Congressmen, then the letter would be in the hands of a sizable number of our elected representatives.  Whether or not that would reach the critical mass needed for action remains to be seen.  

  • It is bad enough to get the letters from DOL that feel threatening, but to get one like this from Peace Corps made me mad.  Isn't anyone looking out for *our* interests?  I think what the OIG is looking to do is reasonable, but given how one sided this whole struggle seems, I feel very frustrated that this 'investigation' seems to be equally one sided.  I find it insulting given how many of us have had to deal with all of DOL's nonsense that they didn't say they were looking into if the system were working well for us, like you mentioned.

  • I put all the medical bills on my credit card, as they had told me to do saying they would pay them all, and then they refused to pay them or if they paid them it was at a 1/4 of the cost…  Of course I will forever have lung and sinus issues because I wasn't treated properly for 8 months.  PC kept saying it was a psych issue, not a physical illness and if I could figure out why I was unhappy I would get better.  In the end it took over two months of heavy-duty antibiotics to make me better, but I will forever have issues because of PC incompetence. Keep fighting.

  • I offered to pay one neurologist out-of-pocket, but he wouldn't take me as a patient even then because workman's compensation is involved;…. I've lived off my savings the past year, so my funds are essentially depleted… I continue to pay for my CorpsCare health insurance, but they won't pay any claims per the Peace Corps condition because it started during service...

  • Make sure you keep going to the doctor. PC likes to pull the "you were fine and didn't see anyone for a week, if it was that bad then you would have seen someone." I heard that so many times. Cause then they turn to, "you were fine for that week, so this illness must have happened in the states and that is not our issue, you are on your own." Please, please keep seeing someone and have doctors document everything! It is your only way out... Also ASAP get your PCMO's records. It is really interesting reading those, half my stuff was never documented, but there was enough there to help my case. It is a really long road, but it does end. You just have to be strong and plow through it. I broke a huge glass window one day after fighting with PC for hours and hours on the phone. At the end of the phone call I threw the phone and it went through the window to the street. Yes, it will be frustrating, but you are more important than any of this. 

  • I was very happy to find your email this morning in my inbox. Wow! You mean there are others in my situation (I sort of figured that).

  • If others are in this situation and need to hear my story to help their cause, please I will do whatever I can to make changes!  PC needs an overhaul and I am going to make it my life's mission to see that happens! Best of luck to everyone!

I will tell you not what you want to hear, but what I know to be true because I have lived it...
Memory is a responsibility because as it is told it becomes witness and reaches beyond the individual 
into the consciousness of the community. 

Arthur Frank