Oil well sealed, claims improving

Published 11:11 am Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Sept. 18, BP engineers permanently sealed the broken mile-deep oil well that has bedeviled our world for far too long. This milestone came three weeks after BP handed over its claims processing operations to an independent overseer.

While significant, these long-anticipated developments have not fully lifted the public’s anxiety about what may still lie beneath the Gulf, nor have they restored local confidence that our economy will soon bounce back. Yet, in recent days we have witnessed hopeful signs that many who lost so much from this economic and environmental “Katrina” may see restitution.

The Gulf oil spill produced two disasters – one visible and one invisible. The visible impact of the disaster on our beaches and in the Gulf has received the most attention from the news media and has served to drive away vital tourism from our region.

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With the physical closure of the blown out well and the removal of oil from our beaches, it is easy for the nation to overlook the other disaster – the unseen economic crisis that still haunts the minds and bank accounts of too many in coastal Alabama.

It has only been six weeks since Kenneth Feinberg took over the colossal task of administering the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), yet he is already a household name in South Alabama. Undeniably, he has a tough job – one that many of us would not want. But many believe, as I do, that the claims process has been too slow and inconsistent both under BP and for much of the transition under the new administrator.

On Sept. 24, I wrote Mr. Feinberg to express my great frustration over reports of underpaid and rejected claims. Struggling business owners have been ignored by an overly restrictive and inconsistent bureaucratic claims process.

I wrote, “Since you have taken control of the administration of the claims process, payments have been slower, payment amounts have been limited, and denials have increased. My constituents – business owners and individuals alike – literally face the decision to shut their doors forever because their claims have been denied, or they can wait no longer for their claims to be paid by the GCCF. On average, anecdotal evidence shows the GCCF is paying only 20 to 35 percent of the claim amounts, and denial of claims has increased significantly. There appears to be no consistency or adequate justification provided for either.”

On September 29, the local press reported that the GCCF had suddenly paid out nearly $200 million in claims and area business owners were expressing relief. While it’s too early to gauge the long-term performance of the claims payment process, it’s certainly very encouraging to see the GCCF take more seriously its role in administering claims.

I am also heartened by Mr. Feinberg’s pledge to reexamine past claims payments to determine if supplemental payments are warranted. These are positive signs and I urge Mr. Feinberg to build on this progress to ensure that all claims are evaluated more quickly and fairly.

For those who have yet to file claims and who feel they are entitled to restitution, you can contact the GCCF toll free at 1-800-916-4893, or email them at info@gccf-claims.com. You can find more information, including local claims offices and on-line claims forms on the GCCF web site: http://www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com/.

Jo Bonner is a guest columnist.