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Gulf spill fund offers little information to claimants

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By Sasha Chavkin, ProPublica

Many claimants seeking
compensation for damages from the Gulf oil spill say they are
struggling to get basic information about what is happening with their
claims.

Dozens of claimants have told ProPublica they are having trouble
getting information about their submissions, and applicants say that the
claims agents they speak to on the telephone and in field offices are
unable to provide any answers. It is possible to check the status
of applications on the website of the operation run by claims czar
Kenneth Feinberg, but claimants say they cannot get explanations for
their status, for delays in processing, or for the size of the checks
sent out for approved claims.

Feinberg acknowledged to ProPublica that his operation
should be doing a better job of providing enough information to
claimants. He said he has been making changes to improve transparency
and responsiveness.

"We have responded to that valid criticism that there's no way
transparency-wise for somebody to get information about their particular
claim or calculation," Feinberg said. He said that claims agents
answering his operation's telephone hotline
had gained access to more information and could provide explanations
for payments, and pledged that "I will be, in the next couple of weeks,
putting more local people in field in the Gulf to have live bodies there
to respond to these very same questions."

About 38,000 claims are currently under review
[PDF] by Feinberg. Another 55,000 have been sent back to claimants for
more documentation. Since Feinberg assumed control of the claims process
on Aug. 23, 66,000 claims have been approved for payment.

Claimants say information is still hard to come by even after the
changes described by Feinberg. More than three dozen participants in
ProPublica's BP Claims Project,
which monitors the claims process by following the experiences of
applicants, told us this week that they were having trouble getting
information about their claims. (If you've filed a damage claim for the
Gulf oil spill, you can tell a reporter about your experience.)

Erin LaGreco, who filed a claim with Feinberg on Aug. 24, said that
no one has been able to tell her why her application is still under
review. She said she calls the claims operation's telephone hotline
every day and has visited two different field offices, but nobody can
give her any answers. Laid off from a part-time job as a reservationist
at the Alabama vacation community Martinique on the Gulf, LaGreco's
bills are piling up: she's two months behind in rent and is worried that
soon she may have to choose between her home and the car that her
husband drives to work.

"When I tell them that," LaGreco said of the claims agents she speaks
to, "all I get is 'I understand what you're going through, but there's
nothing else we can do.'"

LaGreco said that claims agents at the hotline tell her that they
have no way of reaching the claims reviewers. "The best person you could
talk to is the supervisor, and they turn around and tell you the same
thing," she said.

LaGreco originally filed her claims while BP was running the
process -- she received two emergency checks then -- but has yet to receive
anything since she filed with Feinberg. On Sept. 8, she was told by
Feinberg's operation that her claim was being expedited because of her
financial problems. But nearly three weeks later, with no decision on
her claim, she said went into a field office and was then instructed to
write a letter explaining her situation and attach it to her file.

Under Feinberg, claims pass from intake in local offices and online
to software processing in Ohio, and finally to an evaluation by about 25
reviewers based in Washington, D.C., who are the ones who make the
calculations and decisions about payments. Two contractors who have
worked in Feinberg's operation told ProPublica that front-line employees
who interact with claimants cannot communicate directly with the
decision-makers.

Mike Kahn, who said he worked for a subcontractor on the claims
process last month responding to high-priority e-mails from applicants
facing emergencies, said that all he could do to help claimants was to
request documents proving their emergencies and put their information
into a spreadsheet that he sent to his supervisor. He said that he did
not know how the information was used, and that he had no way of
directly contacting anyone with decision authority.

"We didn't have the answers for them as much as we might have wanted
to," said Kahn, who described corresponding with claimants who were
losing their homes, health insurance and their ability to pay for
medication.

A claims evaluator based in a field office in the Gulf, who asked to
remain anonymous in order to keep his job, also said that all he could
do was input claimants' data into the system. He said that he could
write an e-mail to his boss, who would in turn send it on to other
offices in Feinberg's operation asking for a claim to be prioritized.
Like Kahn, the evaluator said could not directly contact anyone with
decision power and had no idea what happened with claimants' information
after he sent it on.

Feinberg confirmed to ProPublica that "the major calculations and the
final decisions" are made by roughly 25 final reviewers employed by the
accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and said that this arrangement
was necessary to ensure consistency of payments. Feinberg said that
sending an e-mail was the appropriate step for field staff seeking to
help an individual claimant. (Feinberg's office didn't immediately
respond to our question about frontline workers' ability to communicate
with decision-makers.) 

Feinberg said that although the employees he is putting in the field
in the coming weeks will not have the authority to make payments, they
will be able to offer answers to claimants on the spot.

"They will have direct access to the particular claim where they will
be able to get particular information right then and there to respond
to inquiries," Feinberg said.

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