Gulf spill claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg speaks at a town hall meeting on the claims process in New Orleans, LA. Photo by BP America on Flickr.By Sasha ChavkinProPublica – Oct. 14, 2010Many claimants seeking compensation for damages from the Gulf oil spill say they are struggling to get basic information about what is happening with their claims.

By Sasha Chavkin

ProPublica – Oct. 14, 2010

Many claimants seeking compensation for damages from the Gulf oil spill say they are struggling to get basic information about what is happening with their claims.

Dozens of claimants have told ProPublica they are having trouble getting information about their submissions, and applicants say that the claims agents they speak to on the telephone and in field offices are unable to provide any answers. It is possible to check the status of applications on the website of the operation run by claims czar Kenneth Feinberg, but claimants say they cannot get explanations for their status, for delays in processing, or for the size of the checks sent out for approved claims.

Feinberg acknowledged to ProPublica that his operation should be doing a better job of providing enough information to claimants. He said he has been making changes to improve transparency and responsiveness.

“We have responded to that valid criticism that there’s no way transparency-wise for somebody to get information about their particular claim or calculation,” Feinberg said. He said that claims agents answering his operation’s telephone hotline had gained access to more information and could provide explanations for payments, and pledged that “I will be, in the next couple of weeks, putting more local people in field in the Gulf to have live bodies there to respond to these very same questions.”

About 38,000 claims are currently under review by Feinberg. [PDF] Another 55,000 have been sent back to claimants for more documentation. Since Feinberg assumed control of the claims process on Aug. 23, 66,000 claims have been approved for payment.

Claimants say information is still hard to come by even after the changes described by Feinberg. More than three dozen participants in ProPublica’s BP Claims Project, which monitors the claims process by following the experiences of applicants, told us this week that they were having trouble getting information about their claims. (If you’ve filed a damage claim for the Gulf oil spill, you can tell a reporter about your experience.)

Erin LaGreco, who filed a claim with Feinberg on Aug. 24, said that no one has been able to tell her why her application is still under review. She said she calls the claims operation’s telephone hotline every day and has visited two different field offices, but nobody can give her any answers. Laid off from a part-time job as a reservationist at the Alabama vacation community Martinique on the Gulf, LaGreco’s bills are piling up: she’s two months behind in rent and is worried that soon she may have to choose between her home and the car that her husband drives to work.

“When I tell them that,” LaGreco said of the claims agents she speaks to, “all I get is ‘I understand what you’re going through, but there’s nothing else we can do.’”

LaGreco said that claims agents at the hotline tell her that they have no way of reaching the claims reviewers. “The best person you could talk to is the supervisor, and they turn around and tell you the same thing,” she said.

LaGreco originally filed her claims while BP was running the process—she received two emergency checks then – but has yet to receive anything since she filed with Feinberg. On Sept. 8, she was told by Feinberg’s operation that her claim was being expedited because of her financial problems. But nearly three weeks later, with no decision on her claim, she said went into a field office and was then instructed to write a letter explaining her situation and attach it to her file.

Under Feinberg, claims pass from intake in local offices and online to software processing in Ohio, and finally to an evaluation by about 25 reviewers based in Washington, D.C., who are the ones who make the calculations and decisions about payments. Two contractors who have worked in Feinberg’s operation told ProPublica that front-line employees who interact with claimants cannot communicate directly with the decision-makers.

Mike Kahn, who said he worked for a subcontractor on the claims process last month responding to high-priority e-mails from applicants facing emergencies, said that all he could do to help claimants was to request documents proving their emergencies and put their information into a spreadsheet that he sent to his supervisor. He said that he did not know how the information was used, and that he had no way of directly contacting anyone with decision authority.

“We didn’t have the answers for them as much as we might have wanted to,” said Kahn, who described corresponding with claimants who were losing their homes, health insurance and their ability to pay for medication.

A claims evaluator based in a field office in the Gulf, who asked to remain anonymous in order to keep his job, also said that all he could do was input claimants’ data into the system. He said that he could write an e-mail to his boss, who would in turn send it on to other offices in Feinberg’s operation asking for a claim to be prioritized. Like Kahn, the evaluator said could not directly contact anyone with decision power and had no idea what happened with claimants’ information after he sent it on.

Feinberg confirmed to ProPublica that “the major calculations and the final decisions” are made by roughly 25 final reviewers employed by the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and said that this arrangement was necessary to ensure consistency of payments. Feinberg said that sending an e-mail was the appropriate step for field staff seeking to help an individual claimant. (Feinberg’s office didn’t immediately respond to our question about frontline workers’ ability to communicate with decision-makers.)

Feinberg said that although the employees he is putting in the field in the coming weeks will not have the authority to make payments, they will be able to offer answers to claimants on the spot.

“They will have direct access to the particular claim where they will be able to get particular information right then and there to respond to inquiries,” Feinberg said.