NEW ORLEANS -- After coming under increasing fire for his handling of the oil spill claims process, Kenneth Feinberg said improvements are coming to the system by the end of the week.
Feinberg made the announcement in New Orleans on Tuesday, during an an unpublicized meeting with area parish presidents. Eyewitness News was there exclusively and spoke with Feinberg and the parish presidents after the meeting ended.
"They [the parish presidents] weren't shy-- and it was a very, very constructive meeting," Feinberg said.
The meeting comes as Feinberg faces mounting criticism of the claims process, not just from those people awaiting payments, but also from the Department of Justice. The DOJ recently sent a letter to Feinberg, calling the speed with which the payments are sent out, "unacceptable."
"I'm not accepting the way it is today. Fix it," St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis said he told Feinberg during the meeting. "I'm very upset. I believe what he's telling me, he's trying to make those changes, but I told him: I said, 'you need to go down the hall, kick somebody and tell them this needs to be straightened out and it needs to be done quickly.'"
"Amounts have to be accurate, timeliness has to be better and the transparency of what's happening in the process, so people don't feel like they're stuck in some abyss," said St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro, who was also at the meeting.
Feinberg told Eyewitness News, he heard all the messages loud and clear.
"They don't want the program to fail," he said. "They are in there saying, 'Mr. Feinberg, work with us. We want to make sure that our citizens are compensated.'"
According to Feinberg, among the changes coming to the claims system are:
-- the mailing out of supplemental checks to people whose initial claims payments fell short
-- the hiring of additional staff at local claims offices
-- and a more transparent and streamlined system, where similar claims are grouped together for faster payments
"We see patterns: shrimpers tend to apply for the same type of claim, oyster harvesters, fishermen, sightseeing ships," Feinberg said. "We now are able to, much more quickly, accept assumptions about the claim, made by the claimant, that should increase the amount of the claims."
Yet, a new urgency for the claims payments may be on the horizon, in part, because BP's Vessel of Opportunity program is beginning to wind down. That could lead to an increase in the amount of claims.
"We will see this Vessel of Opportunity, BP ratcheted down," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. "The need to supplement, until you can go back fishing, is so needy. And so those two programs, those two amounts of money touching hands, is so important."
Feinberg says in the five weeks that he's been administrator of the oil spill claims fund, more than 40,000 claims have been paid out, worth more than $700 million.