Kenneth Feinberg (Pic by Pete Marovich/ZUMApress.com)

Kenneth Feinberg took charge of oil spill claims last week, promising a simple, streamlined, “claimant-friendly” process.

At its Wednesday meeting, Florida’s Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force discussed ways to ensure those promises are kept, after hearing complaints about the difficulty of filing claims and concerns that Feinberg’s process might not be friendly enough to Florida claimants.

The panel “had a very open discussion with Mr. Feinberg” at an earlier meeting and “we felt pretty good after that,” said task force chairman Chris Hart. At yesterday’s meeting (at which Feinberg wasn’t present), the good feelings began to turn. Some members said they almost longed for BP.

Task force member and charter boat captain Bob Zale said he’d been receiving complaints that dock hands, fishermen and other claimants were struggling to fill out the Gulf Coast Claims Facility’s new 18-page application form.

“You’ve gotta be a Philadelphia lawyer to fill the thing out,” he said. Workers who could barely read or write were struggling to decipher legalese and respond to repeated requests for additional documentation.

Feinberg told The Palm Beach Post that the typical claimant can skip some two thirds of those 18 pages. The facility’s “claimant bill of rights” promises assistance to non-Enlgish speakers, the disabled and those who have trouble reading and writing.

Still, members of the task force worried that claimants might need additional help. Hart said the process should be simplified “so regular folks can move through the process easily” and avoid hiring a lawyer.

State Sen. Al Lawson, also a member of the panel, said he feared that the most economically vulnerable victims of the spill were also at the greatest risk of being left out of the process.

The panel also heard from Attorney General Bill McCollum, who outlined his fears that Feinberg’s protocol could be especially onerous for Floridians, in part because it uses “geographic proximity” as one of its standards to determine whether a claimant is eligible.

But Feinberg told The Palm Beach Post Wednesday that “the claims process is working very well overall.” “Money is now being awarded and checks are being cashed,” he said in a telephone interview. “We are already offering on average much more than a claimant ever received from BP.”

As of Wednesday evening, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, up and running for a week and a half, has paid (.pdf) nearly $17 million to nearly 3,000 claimants. More than 35,000 individuals and businesses have filed claims with the facility.

McCollium said Feinberg agreed to meet with him in the coming weeks to discuss his concerns.

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