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A Times Editorial

Oil spill claimants deserve consistency, straight answers

Legitimate questions are being raised by businesses in Tampa Bay and elsewhere that are on the losing end of the BP claims process. Their frustration stems from not being told specifically why their claims were denied and the appearance of inconsistent standards, where similarly situated businesses were compensated while they weren't. Claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg acknowledges these problems and says he's addressing them. But as the claims process moves from its emergency claims phase to the interim phase, Florida's residents and businesses with oil spill-related losses need to know that their claims will be treated fairly, under uniform standards and individual evaluations.

When Feinberg came on board to lead the effort to distribute the $20 billion BP compensation fund, his first duty was to get money to as many hurting businesses as quickly as possible. Feinberg should be given credit for creating a system that handled 470,000 claims in four months. He also made the right call by expanding compensation eligibility to businesses outside the oil spill zone, to include those in Tampa Bay and elsewhere that suffered losses due to a public perception of spoiled beaches.

But the speed of claims processing sacrificed transparency and personal attention. In Florida, 88,000 claims were denied or are in limbo, and too many of these claimants don't understand why they were denied when a neighbor or nearby business competitor received a check. The letters with the bad news suggest generically that their claim possibly fell short due to insufficient documentation or a lack of proof that losses were directly tied to the oil spill. Certainly claimants who did little more than send in a form without backup — and there were 150,000 of those in Florida — should not be surprised by a denial. But then there are businesses like the Bilmar Beach Resort on Treasure Island, which had a $100,000 claim denied despite having filed three years of profit and loss statements as well as customer statements saying that they stayed away last summer due to the threat of oil on the beaches. (Officials now say the Bilmar claim will be reconsidered.)

Feinberg acknowledges some inconsistencies and says that residents and businesses denied compensation in the emergency claims process can try again in the interim claims phase. In the meantime, he says more people are being hired to talk with disappointed claimants who want to know why their claims were deficient. To her credit, Attorney General Pam Bondi says that she intends to pick up where her predecessor, Bill McCollum, and former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink left off, keeping an eye on the process to protect the legal rights of Floridians.

To say that Feinberg's job is challenging is an understatement. In short order, he had to evaluate the legitimacy of nearly half a million claims. Mistakes were bound to be made. Now the process needs to become more transparent and customer service-oriented so that everyone knows they are operating under the same rules and receiving a straight answer.

Oil spill claimants deserve consistency, straight answers 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 5:37pm]
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