Many Gulf Residents Still Waiting On BP Fund Relief

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One year after BP's oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast, Gulf Coast industries, from fishing to tourism, are still reeling. Kenneth Feinberg, chair of BP's $20 billion Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Fund, shares his views on the fund's effectiveness and the claims process.

NEAL CONAN, host:

One year ago, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven men died on the rig and millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the economy along the Gulf Coast continues to suffer. BP set up an account known as the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Fund to cover up to $20 billion in claims. About four billion's been paid out thus far. Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the fund, joins us in a moment.

If you filed a claim, call and tell us your story. How did it go? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kenneth Feinberg joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. KENNETH FEINBERG (Administrator, Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Fund): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And you've chaired the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Fund for about 10 months now. Some say 3.8 billion is a little too little and a little too slow.

Mr. FEINBERG: Well, I can't speak for what others say. I can say that in nine months we've distributed just about four billion; 300,000 claims have been honored. I've received 857,000 claims from 50 states, every state in the union we've had claims filed, some very creative. We have denied claims. We have asked for more documentation for claims. We have, in the queue, we have processed 78 percent of all the claims. So those who are critical - and there is some reason for criticism - are the remaining 78,000, and they're getting filed by the hundreds every day.

CONAN: So more are still coming.

Mr. FEINBERG: Oh - human nature being what it is, you announce that there's $20 billion, and I assure you, based on experience, there will be filings going forward.

CONAN: Now, processed does not mean settled.

Mr. FEINBERG: That's right. Processed means settled and paid, offers made, claims deemed deficient, we need more proof, or out and out denied.

CONAN: And when claims are deemed insufficient for lack of proof, some of these, as I understand it, people just don't have documentation.

Mr. FEINBERG: Well, we don't need tax returns. There's nothing illegal about a cash business. What I do need is some proof that will justify paying a claim. I mean otherwise, if I'm just paying based on a handshake, the $20 billion will be gone tomorrow.

CONAN: And that would be difficult to justify to everybody else who's got a claim too.

Mr. FEINBERG: That's right.

CONAN: When you talk about outright denials, is there some court of appeal that people can go to to say, wait a minute, this has not been fair?

Mr. FEINBERG: Absolutely. Under existing federal law which guides me, any claimant who is dissatisfied with my decision has the right, under the law, to go to the United States Coast Guard Liability Trust Fund and have the Coast Guard make an independent judgment on what I've done. The Coast Guard has received 600 of these requests from claimants and in every single case has agreed with the GCCF, with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

CONAN: And then there are, as you say, some creative ideas about how this money ought to be dispersed. I gather there was one claim for 20 billion.

Mr. FEINBERG: There was one claim for all 20 billion. There was another claim for 10 billion. There was a claim from a restaurant in Las Vegas, which isn't, as far as I know, on the coast, saying that we can't serve shrimp scampi because we can't get shrimp from the Gulf. We've lost 10 percent of our clientele, pay me. We've received claims from dentists, veterinarians, chiropractors. I don't want to be too jocular about this. Most of the claims are from people in the Gulf who absolutely, in good faith, believe they're entitled to be paid for the wrong that they've suffered.

CONAN: And terrible wrongs were suffered, and some fishing areas still closed.

Mr. FEINBERG: That's right. I don't deny that. I don't want to pooh-pooh this. I think this is an emotional situation. Most of the claimants, even those that don't have documentation, believe they're entitled to get paid, and how we deal with these folks is the heart of the matter. Some of this criticism is absolutely justified.

CONAN: In which sense?

Mr. FEINBERG: A couple of reasons. For too long, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility wasn't sufficient transparent. We didn't have local people in 35 claims offices in the Gulf, so people couldn't walk in and talk with somebody about this. In some cases, we have provided inconsistent treatment of similar claimants, not often but in some. And we've taken steps to try and correct these problems.

CONAN: And you now have 35 offices. Obviously, there's a large number of people who work for you.

Mr. FEINBERG: Oh, that's about 3,500 people that are employed. We inherited 2,500 people when BP gave up the claims process and turned it over to us last August.

CONAN: And we want to get callers on the line with you, but there are -one more thing to clarify. There are two categories of claims: One was the emergency claims that were done early on, and those are different from the settlements that we're talking about now.

Mr. FEINBERG: That's correct. From August to November, we paid 168,000 people, $2.6 billion in emergency payments to get them over the hump. Since November 23rd, we've paid about $1.3 billion to 300,000 claimants' claims, which have been presented to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

CONAN: And the second category is the one where, if you accept this payment, you are waiving your right for a lawsuit later.

Mr. FEINBERG: You have two choices - three choices. One, accept a final payment for now and forevermore. Not only can't you sue, you can't come back to the claims facility later on for more money. That option has been chosen by about 17,000 people.

Option two, I don't know about the future of the Gulf. It's unclear to me when the Gulf will return to normal. I'm risk averse. You can take a quarterly payment, document your damage for the previous quarter and keep coming back with no waiver of your right to sue. You can keep coming back to the facility until you've got a comfort level that the Gulf if safe.

Third option - the most prominent option, about 7,500 people have taken that interim payment. And the third option, no more documentation. You got an emergency payment. You don't need to come in with any - just check off a box. If you're an individual, we'll give you $5,000. If you're a business, we'll give you $25,000, release your right to sue, you can't come back, a quick payment within two weeks. That's been chosen by about 112,000 people.

CONAN: And the fourth option, of course, is to go hire a lawyer and take your case to court.

Mr. FEINBERG: That is always an option. If you don't like what the facility is offering you, you have every right to litigate in court.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers involved. Our guest, Ken Feinberg, administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. If you filed your claim, how did it go? Patrick's on the line, Patrick with us from Destin in Florida.

PATRICK (Caller): Yeah. I had a question. It seems like what I've experienced personally and what I seem to have my friends experiencing as well - and we're photographers down in Destin on the beach and our business was wiped out last year. And when we filed initially - very happy, very friendly, very responsive with what we've got. The emergency claims process went great. Now that we've moved into the final payment process, we filed, gave sufficient documentations, 300 pages of documentation, then got a final payment offer that was for four out of the eight months.

When we called to find out why they didn't use all eight months, they said we hadn't submitted documentation for the other four. I then - were able to show them that I had submitted it on February 14. They said, whoops, we found it. Now we'll re-review it. That'll take another 30 to 90 days. It just seems like there's a lot of delay tactics.

I don't know if it's, you know, the traditional insurance route of deny-delay, but it seems as though there is a track record of delaying with the claims process.

Mr. FEINBERG: Well, I don't - there may be a delay with your claim. I can't vouch for any particular claim. I'll say this. To the extent that you provided documentation and it's been found and now this delay, I don't justify that. I think you should have been entitled to a quicker turnaround time.

There is absolutely no attempt to deliberately delay claims. We have processed 78 percent of the claims. So I'm sympathetic to your - have you gone into a local claims office and met with an individual from that local office to discuss this?

PATRICK: I have. They're very, very kind. They say it's been handed over now to a different department, a department that works with accountants directly. And that because I had had sent them the documentation in February and that they didn't use it at that time, that it was started a new - a brand-new process and that it take a minimum of 30 to 90 days again. They said there wasn't a way to move it into a quicker process despite the fact that they had lost the documents to begin with.

Mr. FEINBERG: Again, I can't speak to the individual claims, but I can understand your frustration. And if you'll email me or whatever through the station here, I'll try and take a look at it myself.

CONAN: Just send it to us at npr.org, and we'll forward it to Ken Feinberg.

Mr. FEINBERG: Thank you.

PATRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Patrick. Good luck. Let's go next to - this is Robert(ph), Robert with us from Birmingham.

ROBERT (Caller): Oh, yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: And I'm calling - I actually own a property in Destin, Florida, and I didn't receive any of the emergency funds that were paid out. And I have submitted my claim. And I've actually visited the Gulf Coast Claims Facility on three different occasions. And I was told, during the course of my final visit, when I submitted the information, they said that my documents were as complete as anybody that they've almost received. I had three-year tax returns, provided all the documentation, showing the revenue, showing the losses that were sustained.

I know there's people in the condominium where I own that have received payments, and there seems to be a lot of inconsistency. And now, I've had to get my senators involved, Shelby and Sessions, in this process because I continue to have to make mortgage payments, but yet no payout at this point.

Mr. FEINBERG: What's the nature of the claim?

ROBERT: The nature of the claim is loss rental income.

Mr. FEINBERG: We have paid, as you know, thousands of those claims. Now, if your claim hasn't been honored, again, if the - if it's - if there's a reason why your claim hasn't been honored - I don't know the facts of the individual case. But again, if you'll email us, I'll take a look. We've paid thousands of claims. As you have said, your neighbors have been paid. And if it's inconsistent treatment, I'll look into it and see why.

ROBERT: Well, you know, like I said, the information I submitted was complete. I provided the tax returns. All the documentation is there. Based on my visit, they supported the fact that all the information that should be...

CONAN: But is it just...

ROBERT: ...that we need to process the (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Robert, Robert, Robert, Robert, is it just a delay or did they say no, you're not going to get anything?

ROBERT: Well, every time I called they say it's in review.

Mr. FEINBERG: Delay.

CONAN: Delay.

ROBERT: And so (unintelligible) that period when I was originally submitted the information, they say it was going to be - run it up on 10 days.

CONAN: All right. I hear your problem. If you will email us, again, totn@npr.org, we'll make sure Mr. Feinberg gets it.

ROBERT: Okay. Thank you.

Mr. FEINBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Ken Feinberg, administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you must get these all the time?

Mr. FEINBERG: All the time. And we have, as I say, you're absolutely right, process doesn't mean paid, but these two claims, it sounds as if they're in the ether and I have to check and see what the story is on those two claims.

CONAN: Let's go next to Barbara, and Barbara with us from St. Louis.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi. Neal, if you have properties or you had to deal with the GCCF, you would have a different take on this. I - this is beyond frustrating. And, yes, a lot of people have been paid. However, there are lots and lots of frustrated people out there who call and get the runaround time and time again, and I am one of them.

I finally drove down and met with somebody at the GCCF, but I can tell you, it is beyond frustrating. To go online, send emails, get sent to the escalations team - okay, the escalations team is looking at it. Well, it takes time, like Patrick said, who was the first caller.

Every time you do something, it's going to take another 30 to 90 days for a review and then nothing happens, or then the laws or the rules changed. It's beyond frustrating, absolutely beyond frustrating. And I have done - I tried calling senators down in Florida. I tried calling my senators here, and there's not a whole lot that any of them can do. They say we'll call who we know and see what we can do. It is absolutely frustrating. And I wish...

CONAN: Have the rules changed, Ken Feinberg?

Mr. FEINBERG: Rules are the same.

BARBARA: The rules have changed from the beginning. Initially, you didn't have to send in - now, all they want to do is look at your tax return and see what you made and compare it to what you...

Mr. FEINBERG: Ma'am.

BARBARA: ...what you made last year.

Mr. FEINBERG: Ma'am, let me ask you, what's the nature of your claim from St. Louis, Missouri?

BARBARA: I have two properties in Florida that I rent.

Mr. FEINBERG: I see. I see. And you haven't been paid on either of those properties?

BARBARA: I was paid initially in the very beginning and I ended up doing a final settlement because - just to be done with it, just to be done with dealing with it. And spring break, we drove down so that I could go to one of the offices because you get nowhere. And there are plenty of people around the country that own property down there, rental property, that the only way to deal with it if you don't drive down or fly down is over the phone and over the Internet.

And so, you make it seem like you've done so much and everything is going along swimmingly. There are many, many people out there who are very, very frustrated...

Mr. FEINBERG: Let me just say...

BARBARA: ...and I'm not going to take up more time - excuse me?

Mr. FEINBERG: No, no. Let me just, I agree with you that I don't want to convey the notion that it is very, very swimmingly and everything goes perfectly well. I acknowledge a sharp degree of frustration on the part of many, many people, and I'm trying to deal with that problem, including yours. And I...

BARBARA: Well, you should have...

Mr. FEINBERG: ...I understand. I understand. I hear a lot of this criticism. You're not the first person who's criticized it.

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much. Good luck. Let's see if we get one more caller in and Frankie(ph). Frankie calling from Pensacola. We just have about a minute left, Frankie.

FRANKIE (Caller): Hi. I'm a lifeguard from Pensacola, Florida. I've been in service for five years now. And last year, when I was trying to be re-hired, I was unable to because of the oil spill. And when I put a claim out, they outright denied me, saying that loss of revenue not due to oil spill.

Mr. FEINBERG: Again, I mean, were you a lifeguard before the oil spill?

FRANKIE: Yes, for three years before that.

Mr. FEINBERG: And you offered evidence, you offered something that showed that you lost your job because of the spill as opposed to being laid off for any other reason?

FRANKIE: Well, it's a seasonal job, and I was guaranteed a position to come back, and my re-hiring was delayed due to the oil spill.

CONAN: Well, did you appeal to the Coast Guard?

FRANKIE: Yes.

CONAN: And did they deny it?

FRANKIE: Yes.

Mr. FEINBERG: Again, I don't know the facts, if you'll send me through the...

CONAN: Again, the email address is totn@npr.org, and we'll forward it to Mr. Feinberg. And, Frankie, we wish you the best of luck.

FRANKIE: All right. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And I'm afraid we're out of time. If anybody else wants to email us on that account, we'll forward those as well. And I'm sure they're going to be the first ones you get.

Mr. FEINBERG: You may rue the day that you suggested anybody forward you emails, but that'll be fine.

CONAN: So, again, the address is talk@npr.org. We'll forward the emails to Ken Feinberg, who is the chief administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund.

Tomorrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower joins us. His book "Cultures of War" connects Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, September the 11th, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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