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BP CLAIMS PROCESS HAS OBSTACLES

As hundreds of business owners shuffle through BP's claims process to recover losses brought on by the oil disaster, the company's promise that it will "deny no legitimate claim" is taking on a bitter meaning.

"They have not denied our claim. They have just not paid it all," said Tommy Holmes, owner of Outcast Marine, a fishing-tackle supply company in Pensacola. Holmes lost $73,000 in May and expects losses in June to exceed $100,000. BP has paid him $26,000 for May and refuses to pay the rest, he says. Holmes plans to sue them.

The problem: BP's definition of what it is willing to cover. BP will cover lost profits on the inventory that sits on the shelf but not the inventory itself.

BP spokesman Robert Wine said the company is "trying to put shop owners in the position financially that they would have been in had the incident not occurred." That includes sending reimbursement checks every month they demonstrate a loss and paying for inventory that would have been sold.

"If we sell it for $1 and our profit is 40 cents, what's left is 60 cents," Holmes said. "They don't want to pay us for the inventory that's sitting on the shelf, and we can't pay for it." He buys supplies in January for the summer and pays distributors in the fishing season, when business is good.

"They give us credit like that because we've built up a relationship with them for 23 years," Holmes said. "But now I'm going out of business and my vendors are next. This whole thing is snowballing."

Many business owners don't know what documents are required or that they are entitled to interest on claims not paid within 30 days, said Lisa Echeverri, executive director of the state Department of Revenue.

All those hurdles were expected to be lowered when President Barack Obama announced on June 15 that BP had agreed to a set aside a $20 billion escrow account to pay claims and named a manager, Kenneth Feinberg, to run the account independently.

"The process is not perfect," said Darryl Willis, BP's head of claims processing, at a meeting of the state's Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, BP has cut about 6,000 checks in Florida and paid out $20 million in claims, 15 percent of the $132 million written by BP across all five states. There are 11 claims offices open in Florida.

But Willis wouldn't commit to paying for anything other than profit losses.

Attorney General Bill McCollum named his deputy chief of staff, Bill Stewart, to help oversee the process. His office has published a claims manual and said BP has responded promptly to initial calls for help, but it is taking up to a week to process claims.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose consumer advocate also has been monitoring the claims process, said progress has been slow for people like Holmes.

"They're being promised things like, submit a claim for May or June and we'll forward a payment for you for July, and they're getting a small partial payment," she said.

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