Facing South

As Gulf spill claims czar takes over, a checklist of promised changes

By Sasha Chavkin, ProPublica

Yesterday, independent
paymaster Kenneth Feinberg took the reins from BP in managing damage
claims from the Gulf oil spill. He has promised to make sweeping
improvements in BP's system, which has been criticized by applicants as
slow, bureaucratic and lacking in transparency.

Our checklist of the fixes that Feinberg has promised describes the
changes claimants can expect as Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility
opens its doors. We will be checking with applicants who are
participating in our BP Claims Project to see if these reforms are put in place.

If you're planning to file a claim with Feinberg, you can fill out this quick online form
to speak with a reporter and help us monitor the claims process.
Applicants with pending claims with BP will have to refile with
Feinberg's facility in order to be considered.

Here is our checklist of the key improvements that Feinberg has promised:

One adjuster per claim

Under BP, many claimants have described being switched between
multiple adjusters as their claims are processed. These switches, they
say, have made it difficult to contact the right person to get an update
on the status of their claims. Feinberg has promised that each claim
will now be handled by a single adjuster
throughout the evaluation process. In addition, Feinberg said that he
will create an electronic tracking system so applicants can check the
status of their claims online.

Reduce response time for valid claims to two days for individuals, seven days for businesses

Feinberg has pledged that for valid, properly documented claims,
checks will be sent out within two days to individuals and within a week
to businesses. This timetable would mark a drastic acceleration of a BP
process that many claimants say has left them waiting for weeks and
even months for checks to arrive. "If you file an eligible claim and
document it, we guarantee to process personal claims in 48 hours," Feinberg said at an Aug. 19 meeting
with claimants in Houma, La. "If you're a business and you've been
waiting for months in a black hole with BP, you will get an answer
within seven days."

Eliminate the backlog of unpaid claims

As of Aug. 19, roughly 108,200 claims -- or 70 percent of total claims --- had not received payments of any kind. Feinberg has criticized BP for
leaving too many claims unsettled,
and said he would address these claims promptly upon taking control of
the process. "There are too many claims sitting there unpaid," Feinberg
said at an Aug. 10 meeting in Panama City, Fla. Later that day, he pledged that "people who have been waiting, waiting, we will process those claims immediately."

As we've reported, BP has deferred decisions
to Feinberg on thousands of claims whose eligibility is uncertain.
These claims are not necessarily valid, and many may be denied by
Feinberg. BP data
also shows that 38 percent of claimants have not sent documentation to
support their requests, making it impossible for the company to evaluate
the claim.

Ease the requirements for getting claims approved

Feinberg has said that his standards for both eligibility and
documentation will be more generous than those applied by BP. BP's
process has been guided by the Oil Pollution Act, a 1990 federal law
that holds oil companies liable for direct "removal costs and damages resulting from an incident," while Feinberg has pledged to go beyond the limits of state and federal law to compensate claims. "I will bend over backwards to find eligibility within reason," Feinberg said on Aug. 10. He has also said that he will require "minimal documentation" for claims for emergency payments that will cover up to six months of lost income.

Documents from Feinberg's protocol for judging claims indicate that geographic location will be a key factor
in determining eligibility. The documents indicate that people and
businesses adjacent to an oiled shoreline or waterway will get top
priority, and that "geographic proximity, nature of industry, and
dependence upon injured natural resources" will be among the factors
considered in evaluating claims.

Speed the rate of money going out the door

The single clearest indication of the progress of the claims systems
is the rate that money is being sent out. As of Aug. 19, BP had
distributed $389 million in payments during roughly three and a half
months of handling claims. At the rate that BP has disbursed money, it
would spend about $4 billion, or one-fifth of the amount it has set
aside, during the three-year existence of the fund. (The pace of
spending is also affected by the fact that the company has been making
emergency payments rather than more substantial long-term settlements.)

ProPublica has created a tracker
to show how much money is being spent to pay claims -- see the "BP
Claims Tracker" box to the right of the text. You can embed the tracker on to your own website.

(Photo of Kenneth Feinberg by Samuel Wantman via Wikimedia Commons.)

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