More than six weeks after Louisiana health officials warned of a looming mental health crisis in communities affected by the Gulf oil spill, BP has yet to provide an answer to the state’s repeated requests that the company fund emergency services. On July 9, the state pressed its case in a strongly worded letter urging U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to back Louisiana in its demands.
“Our Louisiana Spirit crisis counseling teams have already engaged and counseled more than 2,000 individuals and are reporting increases in anxiety, depression, stress, grief, excessive and earlier drinking and suicide ideation,” wrote Alan Levine, the Louisiana health secretary. “On May 28, we asked British Petroleum to fund mental health services to the affected region. As of writing this, I have not heard one word, not even a courtesy call acknowledging receipt of our request, from BP.”
Louisiana is requesting $10 million to support six more months of outreach by the Louisiana Spirit program, double the number of crisis counselors, and cover the costs of medication for 2,000 people. Levine’s letter last Friday called on Sebelius to speak out publicly and call on the company to fund these services.
Louisiana health department spokeswoman Lisa Faust said that following the letter’s release, BP made its first acknowledgment of the request, in a fax earlier this week. She said that officials from BP and Louisiana had a phone conversation on the subject this morning, but that she did not know details of the conversation or whether BP had expressed any willingness to provide funding.
We also called BP to ask whether it was planning to fund Louisiana’s request, but haven’t yet received a response.
As we’ve noted, Louisiana’s demands have significant implications for future disputes over BP’s liability in the spill. Much like claims for damages from bodily injury, mental health is not covered under the Oil Pollution Act, the 1990 federal law that holds oil companies liable for “removal costs and damages resulting from an incident.” BP’s response to the request could be seen as a precedent in a new area.
For mental health in particular, tort law has a narrow definition of liability. Louisiana would have to prove that mental health problems were a predictable outcome of any BP negligence in allowing the spill to occur, David Owen, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has told us.
Faust, the health department spokeswoman, said that she was not aware of any plans to file a lawsuit to compel funding of mental health services.
“Our focus is on getting approval as quickly as possible, because we’ve had enough delay and waiting,” she said.