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Care for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

Posted on March 01, 2016

In 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. For 55 years, volunteers have been committing to 2-year assignments to help communities in as many as 140 countries.

But what happens when volunteers return to the United States? Today’s WatchBlog shares what we found when we examined health benefits for returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Federal workers’ comp for returned volunteers

Peace Corps volunteers teach English, strengthen farmer cooperatives, and build sanitation systems in their host countries, among other things.

And, since they’re abroad for 2 years, volunteers are considered to be working around the clock—24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Peace Corps, Kenya

Photo reproduced with permission.

After completing their service, volunteers typically return to the United States. If they returned sick or injured as a result of their service, they may be able to get their medical costs reimbursed through the federal workers’ compensation program. This also holds true if their work aggravated a pre-existing illness or injury.

Like other injured workers, returned Peace Corps volunteers must apply for benefits with the Department of Labor—the agency responsible for the federal workers’ compensation program. If approved, DOL either pays the volunteer’s medical provider directly or reimburses the volunteer for expenses. Then, DOL bills the Peace Corps for those benefits.

What happens in Peace Corps doesn’t stay in Peace Corps

In the past 5 years, the Department of Labor paid about $41 million to reimburse medical expenses for 3,305 returned Peace Corps volunteers. Where did that money go? As you might imagine, many returned Peace Corps volunteers received benefits for infectious or parasitic diseases. Dental problems were prevalent, too. As a group, returned volunteers were also more likely than other federal employees to receive benefits for service-connected mental, emotional, and nervous conditions. Applying for benefits to treat these types of conditions sets them apart from most other federal employees getting workers’ comp.

Under these unique circumstances, both the Peace Corps and the Department of Labor could do more to make sure returned volunteers get the care they need. The Peace Corps requires volunteers to sign a document stating that they were informed about their potential eligibility for workers’ comp, but simply being aware of benefits may not be enough to access them. We reviewed a sample of denial letters sent to returned volunteers from 2009 to 2011 and found that claims were most commonly denied because they either

  1. lacked sufficient medical documentation, or
  2. were unable to connect the diagnosis to Peace Corps service.

If returned volunteers don’t understand the requirements, it can be difficult to file successful claims. Both agencies collect claims denial and other potentially useful information, but neither uses that information to help improve access to benefits for returned volunteers.

In 2012, we recommended that the Peace Corps and the Department of Labor monitor access to and quality of health care benefits for returned volunteers. As of August 2015, both agencies appeared to have made progress on these tasks, but not enough for us to close the recommendation.

To keep track of the status of all of our recommendations, check out our recommendations database.

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