BP oil spill health settlement details are still a mystery

Photos by Chris Granger, Times-PicayuneJorey Danos became ill after helping out with the BP oil spill cleanup. He keeps a jar containing a small amount of oil from the Gulf of Mexico, where Danos helped with recovery.

Photos by Chris Granger, Times-PicayuneJorey Danos became ill after helping out with the BP oil spill cleanup. He keeps a jar containing a small amount of oil from the Gulf of Mexico, where Danos helped with recovery.

Originally published on NoLA.com

In the BP oil spill case, the health settlement negotiated last weekend between BP and attorneys for private plaintiffs in the oil spill litigation makes tens of thousands of new people eligible for care and compensation from the disaster, and it could make a meaningful difference in the delivery of mental and physical health care in small coastal communities. But law professors, environmental health specialists and health care practitioners say it all depends on the yet-unknown details of the agreement, which is expected to be filed in court in mid-April.

“What are going to be the physical manifestations of medical problems that qualify for reimbursement? What degree of exposure would you have had to have had? What’s going to be the standard to qualify for medical monitoring?” asked Blaine LeCesne, a tort law professor at Loyola University who has been following the litigation. “It’s only going to be as good for the plaintiffs as those criteria are flexible and broad enough to embrace a wide variety of claims.”

Just how many people are sick has been one of the great mysteries of the oil spill. Word of illness is rampant, but diagnoses linking ailments to the spill are in short supply, and few have stepped forward.

People who do say they were sickened by the oil or the dispersants are eager to learn details of the health settlement in hopes of getting better, but they want to make sure that payments from BP don’t mean that their stories are swept under the rug.

“We all want the settlement, and we all want to be compensated, but I feel like it’s a revenge tactic,” said Chackbay resident Jorey Danos, who says he got so sick from four months of skimming oil through the Vessels of Opportunity program that he was unable to hold down his regular job as a fabricator upon return, and he lost his health insurance.

Meanwhile, people who worked on oil issues after Exxon’s Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska in March 1989 say the fact that there is a health component to the settlement in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster is a sign of changing times and broader recognition of the many ways in which damage from an oil spill can manifest itself.

“If this had come to us in Alaska, I think everyone in the commission and in the coastal communities of Alaska would have been ecstatic,” said Zyg Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College Law School who was chairman of Alaska’s oil spill commission legal research task force after the Exxon Valdez wreck. The commission’s recommendations were sent Congress as it drafted the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.

For responders and residents

The health program is available to the estimated 90,000 cleanup workers and other spill responders such as government workers. It is also available to coastal residents who lived within a half-mile of a beach for at least 60 days between the April 20, 2010, explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the end of September. It is also available to people who lived within a mile of wetlands for at least 60 days between the date of the accident and the end of 2010. Anyone who doesn’t fall into those groups — such as people who might have fallen ill after vacationing at the beach — will need to file suit against BP on their own if they have grievances.

People who experienced low-level ailments such as eye irritation, rashes, respiratory problems, dizziness, neurophysiological issues, stomach ailments and headaches, whether acute or chronic, can qualify for compensation simply by signing an affidavit about when and how they were exposed and what happened to them. Compensation levels increase if people sought medical help, visited medic tents at work sites, or can demonstrate that they have developed a chronic condition.

Every three years, for 21 years, participants in the medical settlement will get a battery of tests to help them determine whether there has been any change in their medical condition. Tests will be made available within 25 miles of where people live, or BP will pay mileage.

If people get sick later, they have a right to mediate with or to sue BP. They would not have to prove that BP is liable, but they would need to prove a link between their condition and exposure to oil or dispersants.

The deal will also create the $105 million Gulf Coast Region Health Outreach Program, which seeks to increase the capacity for delivering physical and mental health care in coastal communities. Benefits will be available to anyone, regardless of whether they are part of the settlement. Plaintiffs attorneys say the program is a recognition that an oil spill can cause stress, anxiety and domestic violence, and that small-town medical practitioners don’t always have the expertise to recognize signs of chemical illness or know how to treat it.

The program will create a specialist referral network to help diagnose and treat oil spill illnesses and will create an online library of oil spill-related research. The goal is to expand access to community-based primary care, create links to specialty care and raise the level of coastal clinics to federally qualified health care facilities so that they can serve Medicare and Medicaid patients.

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