State hotline set up to help with Gulf of Mexico oil spill claims


Disturbed that nearly half of all Louisiana applications to BP’s oil spill claims fund are lacking in basic documentation, the state has set up a hotline and is paying 10 nonprofit partners to help residents affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill get their money.

Almost 35,000 Louisiana businesses and individuals that have filed applications with independent claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg have not provided basic documentation to prove eligibility, according to Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility. That’s 45 percent of all Louisiana claimants.

The state Department of Children and Family Services is asking anyone who thinks he or she might be in that group to call a new toll-free hotline at 866.325.2046. Callers will be asked to leave a message with their name, contact information, location in Louisiana and a summary of their claims.

“It’s concerning that so many are lacking sufficient documentation,” said Ruth Johnson, the secretary of Children and Family Services.

Johnson said the hotline is also available to those who have yet to file a claim and need assistance, it can help anyone needing Spanish and Vietnamese language help and can answer questions about how the BP claims payments will affect federal and state income tax filing.

The state is setting up the hotline, Johnson said, because privacy laws prevent the state from collecting claimant-specific information held by Feinberg’s team. It is up to any claimant with a problem to reach out and give the state or its nonprofit partners the authority to inquire about their claim on their behalf.

Louisiana has used nearly $2 million of a $20 million grant from BP to hire 12 nonprofits to provide case management services. They can help claimants prepare financial statements, analyze their documentable losses and provide other services.

The 10 participating nonprofits are: A Shared Initiative; Catholic Charities; Coastal Communities Consulting; Greater New Orleans Inc.; Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training; Operation Hope; Seedco Financial Services Inc.; South Louisiana Economic Council; Terrebonne Economic Development Authority; and Volunteers of America, Greater Baton Rouge.

Almost immediately upon taking over the claims process from BP in late August, Feinberg found thousands of claims lacking in basic documentation. Some included no backup records at all, in spite of what Feinberg called his liberal standards for verifying a claim. The problem only got worse when thousands of Plaquemines Parish residents were encouraged to file subsistence claims using form letters provided by parish councilmen in the days leading up to parish elections.

As of Saturday, Feinberg’s office had paid 22,000 Louisiana claimants a total of $540 million for emergency claims covering up to six months of losses. He is accepting applications through Nov. 23, at which point he and his staff will present claimants with offers for final payments. If they accept a final payment, claimants must waive their right to sue BP for any further damages, but they do not have to give up that right to accept an emergency payment.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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