Claimants seeking compensation for the Gulf oil spill who can demonstrate financial need may have their claims “escalated”—selected for prompt processing—by paymaster Kenneth Feinberg’s operation. But some applicants are experiencing long waits even after being told their claims had been expedited. Eleven claimants told ProPublica that despite their claims being escalated, they are still waiting for a decision weeks later. Six of these claimants have been waiting for more than a month.
Feinberg told ProPublica that escalation means that a claim is “immediately prioritized” and moved to the front of the queue for processing. He said that a claimant must show financial need, such as the risk of eviction or bankruptcy, in order to be selected for acceleration. Feinberg has never promised a specific timeframe for deciding on escalated claims, and he said that the amount of time needed for a decision depends on the contents of the application.
“There are no guarantees or targets” for response time, Feinberg said in an e-mail. “It all depends on the nature of the documentation and the policy decisions that I have to make about particular claims.”
Feinberg’s operation does not release statistics about escalated claims, and it is impossible to tell how many claims have been escalated or the duration of the average wait for a decision on these claims. Feinberg said that claims are processed in a single queue that operates on the principle of “first in, first out” and that claimants confronting financial need are the only ones who can skip to the front of the line.
ProPublica spoke with 13 claimants whose cases have been escalated. (We contacted them on Oct. 14 via our BP Claims Project.) Only two have received notice of a decision on their claim, and only one has actually received a check.
Applicants whose claims have remained escalated without a decision expressed concern and frustration with the ongoing delays. (The Washington Independent has also published an account of a claimant who experienced a long wait even after escalation.)
Nick Athens, who filed a claim for lost income from vacation rentals in Destin and Pensacola Beach, Fla., said that he has fallen behind on the mortgage payments for vacation rental properties he owns. In previous years, he used rental income from the spring and summer to cover the mortgage for the rest of year, but this year rentals dropped off following the spill.
Athens has received one check for a fraction of his claim on one property, but the majority of his claim is still pending. He said his case was escalated on Sept. 28 and that he was told he could expect a decision within a week.
On Oct. 7, he had not yet received a response, and he e-mailed Feinberg’s operation to try to speed up the process. “I have until October 16 to make the mortgage payment, after which I risk damage to my credit rating for late payments and possibly going into foreclosure,” Athens wrote.
His claim has still not received a response. “It’s just incredibly, incredibly frustrating,” Athens said.
Mike Kahn, who worked for a contractor in Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility corresponding with applicants whose claims had been escalated, said that all he could do to help claimants was request documentation proving their financial need and forward the information along to his supervisors. He did not know how the information was used and said that he would follow certain cases in the system in the hope of seeing them approved.
“The only thing I know is that days later, these people still would not have been paid,” Kahn said. “And there would be no evidence that the file was moving where it needed to go.”
Only one claimant said that she had actually received a check from Feinberg. Marcia Mandel, whose claim for lost revenue for her hotel in southern Florida sat for weeks after being escalated on Sept. 26, said that a check arrived in the mail on Oct. 15.