Ex-volunteers accuse Peace Corps of health care neglect
The Peace Corps says 91 percent of volunteers are satisfied with their medical care, but government reports as far as 1991 found problems with that care. Some returned volunteers tell CBS News they've fallen through the cracks both during and after their service -- in some cases, for decades, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave.
In 1965, Nancy Minadeo Flanigan was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. She was raped by local men and impregnated with a daughter, who died at birth.
"I started having depression and nightmares and flashbacks," Flanigan said.
In 2012 she got word she would be reimbursed for 50 years of medical bills, but she needed receipts.
"Well, it's been 50 years. I don't have any receipts," Flanigan said.
Now 73 years old, Flanigan is on food stamps and struggling to get by.
"The mission of the Peace Corps is to help other people in other countries, but what about me? I'm here and I need some help," Flanigan said.
By law, Peace Corps volunteers who return sick or injured have to go through the Department of Labor for medical care.
"We care deeply about our returned volunteers," said Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, "They served our nation and we really want them to be able to get the care and support they need and we're working hand in hand with the Department of Labor to make that happen."
A task force established by the Peace Corps in March found some returned volunteers have been waiting years - even decades - to have their medical issues resolved, and admits some of the issues cannot be quickly resolved or would require legislative change.
Former Peace Corps volunteer Victoria Smith described the reimbursement process as a "heavy bureaucratic mess." She broke her leg volunteering in Jamaica in 2008 and a Peace Corps-contracted doctor operated, but she can barely walk.
"It was done incorrectly," Smith said. "(Peace Corps) never contacted me, didn't return phone calls or emails. They sent investigators out, though, just to make sure I wasn't lying about my injuries. Basically, I don't want to sound dramatic, but I'm pretty much dead to them."
In 2012, the Government Accountability Office found fault with both Peace Corps and the Department of Labor for not tracking the accessibility and quality of care for returned volunteers.
While volunteering in Thailand in 2010, William Harless got an infection. He says the pain is still excruciating and he struggles to get care.
When Harless tried to go to a doctor, he said there was no reputable clinic that would take his workman's compensation.
"My claim examiners at the Department of Labor have treated me like I'm a parasite whose trying to live off the government dole," Harless said.
Smith continues to fight for reimbursement. She says her mother keeps her going.
"Because I know if I ended it all, it would tear her apart but if she weren't here, I can't tell you what I would do," Smith said.
Smith asked for an investigation of how the Peace Corps handled her injury. She was told standards for medical officers were upgraded in 2012, but months later, Sue Castle's son, Nick, died from a stomach virus while volunteering in China.
Castle believes her son would still be alive if he hadn't joined the Peace Corps.
"It took me two years of fighting to get an inspector general's report finding fault with his treatment," she said.
That report found "cascading failures" and "delays in treatment" led to Nick's death.
"When you're really sick, you really can't advocate for yourself and they're not advocating for you either. So there needs to be better measures in place," Castle said.
The Peace Corps says it has been implementing significant reforms, like hiring staff to help with the claims process. But to do more, the law would have to change.
The Department of Labor told us the average volunteer gets a decision on their claim within 29 to 46 days.
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