Health, Safety Updates on Puzey Bill Anniversary
By Jonathan Pearson on Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
On the one year anniversary of final approval of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, there are new updates in relation to efforts to further ensure the health of returning Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and the safety of Volunteers in the field.
One element of the Kate Puzey legislation required the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine the accessibility and quality of health care services provided through the Department of Labor (DOL) to volunteers who return from service abroad in the Peace Corps.
In its just released report, the GAO is recommending the Secretary of Labor and the Director of the Peace Corps “jointly develop and implement an approach for working together to use available information to monitor the access to and quality of Federal Employee Compensation Act (FECA) benefits provided to RPCVs.” Follow this link to read the full report and to read the Peace Corps response.
From 2009 through 2011, the report says DOL provided a total of about $36 million in FECA benefits – health and other benefits – for Peace Corps volunteers who returned from service abroad. Peace Corps reports these expenses represent a growing portion of its annual budget, adding that from 2009 through 2011, such expenses increased by just over 7%.
GAO outlined four key areas to monitor access to and quality of health care benefits. On the first, GAO reports “Peace Corps uses information it has to monitor volunteers’ awareness of the FECA program.”
However, GAO states in general ”neither DOL nor the Peace Corps use information in the remaining three areas in our review to monitor the accessibility and quality of FECA benefits for volunteers.” Those areas include:
- Peace Corps Volunteers’ knowledge of FECA program and application requirements.
- DOL’s timeliness in reviewing applications and reimbursing for medical expenses, and the level of customer satisfaction with the FECA program.
- Availability of FECA-registered medical providers.
In its response to the GAO, Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet says despite efforts to assist RPCVs with FECA, “too many RPCVs continue to find the FECA process to be bureaucratic, frustrating and time consuming. The response also notes Peace Corps has been negotiating with DOL for several years on several reforms it believes will improve the system, and “continues to be ready and willing to work with all parties on necessary improvements.”
The DOL report also notes “Peace Corps officials told us that a survey of former volunteers specifically about access and satisfaction issues would be useful…the results of such a survey could help clarify whether volunteers have access to the care they need and what the volunteers think about the quality of the care they receive.”
Such a survey has been prepared by the group Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers. Over the last two months, nearly 7,500 members of the Peace Corps community have taken the survey. As the group is preparing to review and analyze the results, now is a good time to take the survey and share it with others who have not yet responded.
The Kate Puzey Act was named after the Georgia Peace Corps Volunteer who was murdered after reporting a Peace Corps contractor was sexually assaulting young girls in the village where Kate lived. This tragedy led to the formation of the advocacy group Kate’s Voice. Around the same time, the group First Response Action (FRA) formed to advocate for reform of Peace Corps policies in relation to sexual assault of volunteers.
First Response Action reports it met with Acting Director Hessler-Radelet, is reviewing reports and findings including those from the Sexual Assault Advisory Council and General Accounting Office, and staying in contact with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
One such document is a recent report from the Peace Corps Office of the Inspector General (IG), pertaining to the review of Peace Corps implementation of guidelines related to volunteer victims of rape and sexual assault. According to the report, “The Peace Corps accomplished a number of initiatives during 2011 that addressed concerns raised by sexual assault victims.” This included development of a framework for responding to sexual assaults centering on supporting the victims, and the hiring of a victim advocate to work with Volunteers and staff to enhance support for sexual assault victims.
The IG report also outlined 12 recommendations which it believes would further strengthen the agency’s response and care to volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted. These recommendations include annual “all staff” sexual assault training sessions, further clarification of key staff roles in responding to sexual assaults, further guidelines and directives for in-country staff, and implementation of a centralized sexual assault case management system. In its response to the IG report, the Peace Corps says it concurs with all 12 recommendations, with a goal of taking action on all issues by the middle of 2013.
Follow this link to read the IG Report and Peace Corps’ response.
First Response Action says it plans to issue its own report card on how the Peace Corps is doing in implementing the law and wants to stay in touch with current volunteers to hear their experiences. That’s according to FRA member Karestan Koenen who says ”If you have been assaulted or know someone who has been assaulted in the past year, we would like to hear from you. What is the Peace Corps doing well? Where could it improve?”
Koenen says individuals can contact her at email@example.com. Information will be held in the strictest confidence.