Washington Post Examines Peace Corps’ Policy Regarding HIV-Positive VolunteersWashington Post columnist Stephen Barr on Monday examined the Peace Corps' policy regarding HIV-positive volunteers. According to Barr, Jeremiah Johnson, a former volunteer in Ukraine, recently was discharged by the agency after he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Johnson discovered that he is HIV-positive in January during a scheduled medical exam that took place in Ukraine's capital of Kiev. Johnson said that a few days after the test results came back positive, the Peace Corps' Ukraine country director told him to return to Washington, D.C., because Ukrainian law prevents HIV-positive people from working in the country. According to Johnson, he was never provided with a copy of the law. State Department and travel Web sites indicate that foreigners working in Ukraine on visas lasting more than three months are required to undergo HIV tests, according to Barr. The Peace Corps declined to comment on the issue, and a phone call to the Ukrainian Embassy was not returned, Barr writes.
After returning to the district, Johnson in February had another medical exam and was given a "medical separation" from the Peace Corps, according to Barr. The agency on the separation notice said that it had determined the "resolution of [Johnson's] condition(s) will take longer than the maximum-allowable 45 days" and that Johnson "would be medically unable to perform [his] volunteer assignment."
According to Johnson, the Peace Corps' decision to end his assignment violates federal anti-discrimination laws. He was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union, which last week wrote to the agency's director, Ronald Tschetter. ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Shore said that Johnson's dismissal "appears based upon a Peace Corps policy to terminate volunteers who are HIV-positive without an individualized assessment as to whether they are able to serve with reasonable accommodation." She added that such a policy violates the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
Peace Corps Press Director Amanda Beck said that Tschetter plans to respond to ACLU. "The Peace Corps does not have a policy of automatically excluding people with HIV," Beck said, adding that the agency "conducts individualized medical examinations of volunteers and applicants who are HIV-positive." According to Beck, she cannot comment on Johnson's case because of privacy rules and because Johnson "has not given us permission to speak about his individual situation."
ACLU said that the Peace Corps should have given Johnson the opportunity to serve elsewhere after he returned from Ukraine. "Regardless of what they say their general policy is, this is not what happened here," Shore said. In the letter, ACLU pointed out that the State Department recently changed a policy that disqualified HIV-positive people from entering the foreign service.
"The only thing I want is the Peace Corps to respond to this letter, change their policy to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws or to clarify their policies so if they are in line with the law they stick with it," Johnson said (Barr, Washington Post, 4/28).
The ACLU letter and other documents are available online. This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.