Payments of health claims related to BP oil spill to begin soon

The administrator of a BP-funded program set up to compensate cleanup workers and Gulf Coast residents with health problems potentially related to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill says he’s ready to begin processing claims, after legal wrangling over the program ended this week.

Matt Garretson, founder and CEO of Garretson Resolution Group, which is administering the settlement, said his office has received about 5,500 claims so far, but he said efforts to process the claims were stalled as the agreement worked its way through the courts.

Evaluation of claims will begin in the coming days, Garretson said, with notifications being sent out to some claimants who may need to submit more information.

Not all of the 5,500 claims received so far are necessarily eligible. “We will have to go through them and make determinations,” he said.

The medical settlement — which sets no overall cap on the potential damages to be paid — was approved by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in January 2013. It’s separate from a settlement agreement that compensates Gulf Coast residents for economic damage to businesses and property because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 workers and is widely considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The medical settlement became effective Wednesday after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed claims by plaintiffs who had already voluntarily dropped their objections, essentially a housekeeping issue that allowed the program to clear the final hurdle.

The program covers clean-up workers as well as residents who lived in specified beachfront areas or near wetlands within one mile of the Gulf after the oil spill.

BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday that the settlement “resolves the substantial majority of medical claims stemming from the Deepwater Horizon accident brought by clean-up workers or residents of specified Gulf Coast areas.”

The settlement program includes cash payments for physical conditions associated with exposure to oil or chemical dispersants, including respiratory problems, skin rashes and neurological issues; comprehensive medical evaluations every three years for 21 years; and a process by which clean-up workers and residents who develop a spill-related medical condition can later file suit against BP for damages.

The amount of money a claimant can receive varies based on several factors, including whether the specified ailments are short-term or ongoing conditions that first appeared or got worse after the spill. The conditions fall into several categories, including vision; respiratory; ear, nose and throat; skin; neurophysiological; gastrointestinal; and heart-related conditions for clean-up workers.

Payments also hinge on the amount of substantiating evidence that can be produced and whether the claimant was a clean-up worker or a Gulf resident.

“It’s been a long four years, but now hundreds of thousands of people will finally get the medical care and compensation they need,” said Stephen Herman and James Roy, co-lead counsel for the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, the group of lawyers that reached the deal. “BP’s spill had not only a profound environmental and economic effect on the Gulf, but the oil and chemicals released took an enormous toll as well. We’re pleased that those affected will now be able to get their claims processed in a transparent and expeditious manner.”

The settlement also includes a $105 million grant for improving access to health care in 17 Gulf Coast counties and parishes as part of a five-year initiative. That effort is to address behavioral and mental health needs, training community health workers and expanding environmental health expertise.

The program is open to most clean-up workers who responded to the April 20, 2010, oil spill, as well as residents of certain coastal zones in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida in 2010.

Garretson said his company, which administers class-action settlements, has opened a claims center in New Orleans.

“There’s very specifically prescribed injury claims that we can compensate, so our review will be limited to determining if the claim and all the supporting documents qualify as a class member for one of the predetermined injury categories,” he said.

Attorneys for BP and the plaintiffs’ class have spent much of the past year haggling over the interpretation of the economic settlement in legal filings and public settings, but Garretson said he doesn’t expect the same level of controversy to surround the medical settlement because “the values and the determination and award categories have already been agreed to by the parties.”

For now, he said, it’s “too early to tell” how many claims to expect. The window is now open for one year, and plaintiffs’ lawyers estimate that as many as 200,000 people may be eligible.

BP initially estimated that both settlements could cost it $7.8 billion. That estimate later rose to $8.5 billion, and BP has since said in regulatory filings that “no reliable estimate can be made.”