CLAIMS CZAR FEINBERG REBUILDS TRUST
By Rick Outzen
“Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man, oh the Candy Man can
The Candy Man can ’cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.”
–Sammy Davis, Jr.
In August, when the man in charge of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility barnstormed across the region, Ken Feinberg promised to streamline the BP claims process and get generous checks into locals’ hands before they lost their homes and businesses. With $20 billion in the fund established by BP, Feinberg, who had handled claims for the 9/11 disaster, Agent Orange and the Virginia Tech massacre, is “The Candy Man” for the Gulf Coast.
Ken Feinberg came to Orange Beach, Ala. on Wednesday, Sept. 15 to hear directly how his Gulf Coast Claims Facility had not delivered the “candy” as he had promised the victims of the BP oil disaster.
“I love this community,” Feinberg assured the crowd that packed the recreation center. “I appreciate this community. I am your advocate.”
The group of small business owners, realtors, charter boat captains and government officials wanted to believe him, just like they believed BP vice president Darryl Willis in June and him in August.
With BP running ads daily proclaiming that they will make things “right,” people are beginning to wonder who gets to define “right”—because if the victims of the largest manmade environmental disaster in our history get to do so, then BP and Feinberg have a very long way to go.
WINNING BACK TRUST
“Who can take a rainbow, wrap it in a sigh
Soak it in the sun and make a groovy lemon pie
The Candy Man, the Candy Man can…”
Feinberg was in the gym on Canal Boulevard at the invitation of Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who called the “Claims Czar” to complain about the ineffectiveness of the process. “I got a call last week from your mayor, who told me I’d better listen. I said don’t you convey what they said—I ought to come and hear for myself.”
In his first 20 seconds at the podium, Feinberg used the words “I,” “me” and “myself” six times—and there may be where the problem lies. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) is Ken Feinberg. There is no other face for the GCCF, and no one else to turn to for help.
When he came to Pensacola on Aug. 11, Feinberg told locals that he would be more generous and pay sooner than BP. He was direct and asked the Gulf Coast to trust him. On Sept. 15, he was in Orange Beach to take the blame, listen to suggestions and win back that trust.
The Orange Beach Recreation Center was packed with nearly 1,000 Alabama and Florida small business owners. Mayor Kennon asked those in the crowd to stand if they had filed a claim with the GCCF since Aug. 23. Nearly the entire audience stood; he then asked those who had received any payments from Feinberg’s program to remain standing—only about 25 people were on their feet. Of that number, less than six had been paid more than half of what they asked for.
Mayor Kennon called Orange Beach the “epicenter of the losses,” and the statistics back him up. His small coastal town has lost $4 million in sales and bed tax revenues since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform. Its neighbor, the City of Gulf Shores, lost $4.2 million. These tax losses represent over $100 million in lost sales for their hotels, restaurants and other businesses. To date, those businesses have only received about $9 million in payments from BP and GCCF.
The people sitting on the gym floor in metal chairs and on the bleachers were angry, frustrated and desperate. The GCCF process has been more automated than the BP claims process, but also less personal. There are still claims offices along the Gulf Coast, but there are no adjusters on site to discuss claims as there were under BP.
BP PROCESS BETTER?
Attorney Matthew Villmer, whose firm, Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon, is handling claims for 30 clients, visited the Pensacola, Fla. claims office to check on the status of those claims filed by his clients.
“All they could do was look up the basic claims information on the computer,” Villmer told the IN. “I could have done the same thing from my office. No one knows who their adjuster is. They’re all put in a queue for the adjusters to pull down. They don’t have to put their name on the claim.
“We had a client receive half of what they filed. Why? There is no one to talk to about how they adjusted the claim.”
The lack of communication has Villmer and others missing the old BP system.
“The BP process was better,” Villmer said. “There are some who have gotten more than they asked for, but when the payments aren’t as generous, you can’t talk to anyone about the adjustment or how to increase the payment.”
Keith and Kim Brooks agreed with Villmer. They left their jobs to start a website to help promote the Gulf Coast: YourFloridaEmeraldCoast.com. Keith quit his job nine days before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. He and his wife had dozens of commitments from advertisers and had a strong base to launch the site…before the explosion.
In July, Brooks first submitted his claim. Because it was a new business without a history, he had some challenges, but was eventually able to document his claim for his BP adjuster. Unfortunately, when he got all of his documentation in and the adjuster was satisfied, it was Aug. 18, and Brooks was told that his claim was being passed on to Feinberg’s team.
On Aug. 23, Brooks went online and got a new claim number. He called the next day and verified that they had his documentation. The person on the phone told him that the turnaround would be about seven days.
When he called back later, the person answering the phone wasn’t quite as friendly, but told him that they were reviewing his claim. He called again this week and asked to speak to the person handling his claim, and was told that he couldn’t because it would slow down the process.
“I’m in limbo; I’m unable to speak with anyone about my claim,” Brooks told the IN in a telephone interview. “At least BP’s adjusters would talk with you.”
Mayor Kennon doesn’t want to see the claims process back in BP’s hands. “BP was a disaster,” Kennon said. “Our season is over and our reserves are gone. Mr. Feinberg needs to make sure we have timely, adequate payments. Otherwise, mass failures of businesses are certain.”
He did recommend to Feinberg, “Write checks for whatever we say the claim is…it may be generous—so what? BP can never make us whole.”
SHOW US THE MONEY
“Oh, who can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream
Separate the sorrow and collect up all the cream
The Candy Man, oh the Candy Man can…”
Keith Lee, owner of Worldwide Interiors in Orange Beach, said, “Expediency is the key. It’s an emergency and we’re going to be DOA. Just take whatever BP paid me for one month, add a little, and multiply it by six.
“We have no advocate. We have no forum. We have got to have cash now.”
And that was the theme of the town hall meeting. People were tired of the red tape, tired of waiting for checks and have now run out of alternatives. A dozen people in the room had lost their homes or closed their businesses because of the oil disaster.
Margo Vincent has a vacation rental business in Destin, Fla. While speaking before the Orange Beach crowd, she talked about how she sold family jewelry to make ends meet while she waited for her checks from BP and GCCF.
“My claim has 128 documents,” Vincent said. “My BP adjuster said they were immaculate.”
The day the claims process was turned over to Feinberg, she had delivered her claim to the local GCCF office. Somehow, she was given two claims numbers and has currently been waiting for two weeks for them to merge the files.
Trisha Adams, a deli shop owner at The Wharf, has only been in business for 13 months. Her claim was put into a “dead file” until she finds a comparable Orange Beach business that will share its sales figures to substantiate her loss.
The owner of another restaurant was told all of her documents that she submitted to BP had been lost and had to be resubmitted. When she told the local GCCF office that Mr. Feinberg said that she would be paid in seven days, she was told that she misunderstood him and that it would take four to seven weeks.
TAKING THE BLAME
To his credit, Feinberg didn’t back down or point blame elsewhere. After all, he is the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
“I am determined to make this program work for the benefit of the people of this community,” he said.
He said that much of the system is working effectively. “In the first three weeks of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, I approved 16,000 claims and authorized payments in excess of $185 million. I have distributed more money in three weeks than BP distributed in three months.
“I don’t want you to think I’m simply an agent of BP. Whatever flaws there are in the system, they are mine, not BP’s.”
Feinberg admitted that it has taken too long to process claims. “I overpromised and under-delivered on timing. We are processing 1,000 claims a day, but too many people are waiting for checks. I’ve got to find a way to accelerate the payments.”
He also said that too many people have been sent too little. “The generosity of the fund has been called into question.” Feinberg has already authorized supplemental checks and is currently looking at how to process claims without the present degree of micromanagement of documentation.
Feinberg also plans to have someone who can be his “eyes and ears” in Alabama and who can answer to the locals on the claims. “We need to be more transparent.”
To win back the trust of the crowd, Feinberg brought 20 adjusters that set up shop next door to the recreation center for the afternoon. As soon as he announced that, about a third of the room immediately ran to get a face-to-face consultation with a GCCF adjuster.
Feinberg stayed at the podium and listened to claims horror stories and recommendations for improvements for the next two hours. Several times, at the microphone, he asked the business owners to give him their claims; he told them that he would check into them.
The GCCF is Ken Feinberg. The verdict is out as to whether that is a good or bad thing.
“The Candy Man can ’cause he mixes it with love
and makes the world taste good
Yes, the Candy Man can ’cause he mixes it with love
and makes the world taste good
a-Candy Man, a-Candy Man, a-Candy Man…”
GCCF PROGRAM STATISTICS – FLORIDA SUMMARY
(as of September 18, 2010)
Claimants Claims Claims Paid Amount Paid
Individual 11,380 12,119 4,662 $ 33,040,616.46
Business 8,874 9,719 2,152 $ 22,266,300.00
Total to Date 20,254 21,838 6,814 $ 55,306,916.46
(Claimants may have one or more claims)
CLAIMS BY EMERGENCY OR FINAL PAYMENT
Claims Submitted Claims Paid Amount Paid
Emergency Advance Payment 20,047 6,814 $ 55,306,916.46
Final Claim* 1,791 0 $ -
*Review underway to determine whether claimant intended to file Final Claim
Total to Date 21,838 6,814 $ 55,306,916.46
CLAIMANT BILL OF RIGHTS
1. You have the right to equal treatment. You have the right to be treated with respect, dignity, and fairness, without regard to your race, color, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, gender, or disability.
2. You have the right to equal access to the claims process. If you have a disability, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (“GCCF”) will make reasonable accommodations in order for you to access the services of the GCCF. If you have difficulty communicating in English, the GCCF will provide translation services for you to communicate about the claims process with the GCCF. If you have difficulty reading or writing, the GCCF will endeavor to explain all documents and forms in a plain and simple manner, and assist you in filing a claim form.
3. You have the right to privacy. Your submitted personal information will be kept secure by the GCCF and will only be used and disclosed for legitimate purposes in connection with administering the GCCF.
4. You have the right to information about your claim. You can meet with a member of the GCCF staff to ask any questions you have about the claims process. Once you have filed a claim with the GCCF, you have the right to check the status of that claim by calling the toll-free number 1-800-916-4893 or TTY 1-866-682-1758, visiting the GCCF’s Internet site, gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com, or visiting a GCCF office in person.
5. You have the right to a fair review and determination of your claim. The GCCF Claims Evaluator will consider all properly submitted evidence that you provide to prove your loss.
6. You have the right to a timely claim decision. The GCCF will issue a timely determination of your claim. If the GCCF needs additional information in order to decide your claim, the GCCF will notify you in a timely manner of the request for additional information.
7. You have the right to timely payment. If you qualify for a payment, you will be paid promptly.
8. You have the right to ethical treatment. All representatives of the GCCF will act ethically and in good faith.
Source: GCCF website, GulfCoastClaimsFacility.com
LOCAL GCCF OFFICES
3960 W. Navy Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32507
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. CT, Monday-Sunday
5668 Gulf Breeze Parkway
Gulf Breeze, FL 32563
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. CT, Monday-Sunday
Orange Beach, Ala.
24039 Perdido Beach Blvd.
Orange Beach, AL 36561
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. CT, Monday-Sunday