NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Thirty million dollars is a lot of money, but how do you divide it among the families of the three people killed, the dozens maimed, the hundreds who spent time in the hospital, the thousands who witnessed the blasts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month?
After 9/11, the shooting at Virginia Tech, the BP oil spill and now the bombs in Boston, Kenneth Feinberg has been asked to manage the money provided for victims. He's held town meetings to talk about his process. He will meet with victims and families of those killed, and he plans to send out checks next month.
The administrator of The One Fund For Boston joins us in just a moment. We'd like to hear from our listeners in Boston. If you followed the hearings on the Boston fund, what were the hard questions? What's fair? 800-989-8255 is our phone number, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, former Ambassador Christopher Hill on the biggest U.S. mistake in Syria and the prospects for a plan to fix it. But first Kenneth Feinberg joins us here in Studio 42. He's written about his earlier experiences as a victims fund administrator in a book called "Who Gets What," and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Nice to be here.
CONAN: What's the most difficult question you heard during those town hall meetings in Boston?
FEINBERG: This time around, the most difficult was whether or not the fund would make distinctions based on financial wherewithal. If you have two double amputees, lost both limbs, should the amputee who's a banker making a million dollars a year with plenty of disability insurance get the same amount from this fund as the double amputee who's a construction worker earning $42,000 a year with five kids? Or does one size apply to everybody who are victims?
CONAN: And does the setup of the fund, one of things we learned talking to you last time, is how the fund is described, its charter. That makes a big difference. So do you have the latitude this time around to make that distinction if...?
FEINBERG: Absolutely. Unlike the 9/11 Fund, which was a federal statute, a law, using taxpayer money that required every victim of 9/11 who accepted the money voluntarily to waive their right to litigate against the World Trade Center, the airlines, Boeing, Mass Port, et cetera. This money, the marathon, like Virginia Tech, like Aurora, Colorado, like the Indiana State Fair, like Newtown, is a gift - private, donated money.
There is no statute. We can write on a blank slate here in deciding some of these critical issues.
CONAN: But as with those other funds, one of the critical problems that you've had is to explain it's not going to be enough, it's never going to be enough.
If Mayor Menino told me one thing in accepting this assignment, he said Ken, make sure you lower people's expectations. When you've got 20 single or double amputees, four dead, scores still in the hospital, there's not enough money to distribute. You have to make some very difficult choices, understanding that this money does not require any victim to give up any rights or waive any rights they might otherwise have.
Now you said four dead, so this fund includes compensation for the family of that police officer who was killed?
FEINBERG: Yes, we felt that was appropriate under all the circumstances.
CONAN: And those who were injured in the shootout.
FEINBERG: That's correct.
CONAN: And so that means there is going to be hard questions for those who are injured, but maybe not as injured as somebody else.
FEINBERG: Very difficult questions. As a result of the town hall meetings, we did decide, in developing the final protocol for compensation, to include as eligible individuals physically injured, Neal, who went to the emergency room at Boston hospitals but after receiving treatment were released, they were not kept overnight.
We thought long and hard about it, relative to the amount of money we had, but we felt at the end that there should be a category of eligible claimants for those who received emergency hospitalization but were sent home after being treated.
CONAN: Rule of thumb you've used in the past: You can gauge, some degree, the seriousness of the injury by how many nights somebody spent in the hospital.
FEINBERG: That's correct, and you also gauge eligibility, the very practical issue, how much money do you have. The more money you have, the more you can find eligibility. The less money - in Aurora, Colorado, the movie shootings, we had $5 million. In Virginia Tech, we had $7 million to distribute. Here we have $30 million.
CONAN: But a much bigger class, if you will.
FEINBERG: A much - a bigger class, of not only injured, but a much bigger class of horrific injuries. 9/11, we found, you either really got out of those buildings and planes, or you didn't. There were very few traumatic injuries arising out of attacks themselves.
CONAN: There was awful scenes of people waiting at hospitals for severely injured, and they never came.
FEINBERG: That's right, the ambulances were never used to rush physically injured victims. Here in Boston, the physical injuries are just horrific and devastating.
CONAN: And as you look at these sets, every incident is different, every circumstance is different. What makes this one different other than those injuries you're talking about?
FEINBERG: That is the main difference, the number of physical injuries, A. The second thing that makes this different relative to these other private funds, the charitable impulse of the American people after these attacks, $30 million, which isn't anywhere near enough, but when you compare it to other private programs - other than, of course, 9/11, in terms of charitable giving - this a tribute, I think, to frankly the mayor and the governor and their zeal in urging fellow citizens to contribute.
CONAN: Is the money still coming in?
FEINBERG: The money is still coming in. We'll see. As of June 15th, we'll see how much money there is to distribute, and of course One Fund Boston will continue after these funds are distributed. One Fund Boston will have an ongoing mission to further assist the victims and the community as a whole.
CONAN: Will that further assistance be predicated on a formula that you've arrived at by the time you make your decision? In other words, if X percent goes to Victim A, X percent of the same percentage of any additional funds would go to Victim A?
FEINBERG: Not necessarily. That'll be up to the board of One Fund Boston, whether they believe that whatever money is after June 15th should be allocated to these victims as second payment or whether it ought to be allocated in different amounts or to the community as a whole. That'll be up to them.
CONAN: We're talking with Kenneth Feinberg, the special master of the Boston One Fund, and we'd like to hear from our listeners in Boston. If you followed those town hall meetings, if you've listened to people who have been asking questions, what are the hard questions you heard? What's fair? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
I have to ask you, Ken Feinberg, is this a relatively new phenomenon, this idea that we would donate - public people - donate to compensate victims of a tragedy?
FEINBERG: Yes, actually, if you look at the history of the nation, it is a rather recent phenomenon. 9/11 was of course a federal law, but these private donations that - after tragedy have sort of proliferated over the last few years. I think part of it is copycat. You see that it worked before. Part of it is the 24/7 news cycle, where everybody now gets very emotional, learns about these horrible tragedies, immediately writes a check, sends it in. It is a rather recent phenomenon, actually.
CONAN: And it's an interesting - because of that phenomenon, you have become the indispensable man. You have become the person everyone turns to in these situations, and there is a wonderful title for people who do what you do, it's called special master.
FEINBERG: That's a legal term that's developed over the years, special master, a special appointee with a special, designated assignment for a limited period of time. I must say I push back all the time when people say that I've carved out this special area of specialty. The fact of the matter is I'm asked to do it by governors or mayors or presidents or attorneys general.
So I do it, but I do it, I think thousands, maybe millions, of Americans would do just as well. This is not rocket science. It does not require a law degree or a college degree. I think it requires fortitude. I think it requires determination to do the job, public interest. But I think there are probably thousands of Americans that could do what I do.
CONAN: Controversially you got paid by BP to serve as the administrator of that fund. Are you getting paid in Boston?
FEINBERG: No, no, Boston, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, 9/11, that's all pro bono. I don't think it would be appropriate. BP, I mean, we had an international oil company that was perfectly willing to pay the freight for the entire program, and I thought it would have been a little foolhardy of me not to get paid during that assignment.
CONAN: And that was a long-running assignment, too.
FEINBERG: That was 16 months. We got out six and a half billion dollars to 220,000 people who in that case BP, like 9/11, had to surrender their right to litigate in order to get the money, but virtually all of them did.
CONAN: And as you look back, and we talked to you about your book in the past, but as you look back at these experiences, these are terrible circumstances these people are going through. This is part, now, of our healing process, after 9/11 I think. This is part of what we do. What part do you think this - these kinds of funds, there are all kinds of - there are going to be memorial services, there are going to be public ceremonies, there's going to be anniversary celebrations - well not celebrations but marking. There's going to be a trial. What kind of role does this process play?
FEINBERG: Community cohesion. It is an amazing thing to me to see how the country, regardless of political polarization or red states, blue states, how the American people rally as a country, as a nation, as one people in coming to the aid of fellow citizens in need, and I find that to be extremely important, very healing and an integral part of this entire process.
CONAN: We're talking with Ken Feinberg. More in a moment. We want to hear from listeners, especially those in Boston. If you followed the hearings on the Boston Fund, what were the hard questions you heard? What's fair? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
...depend somewhat on the socioeconomic status of the person. How do you address this fairly, or do you factor that in at all?
FEINBERG: Do not factor in at all. It's one more example - perfectly legitimate question, excellent question - we don't factor it in at all. We are not going to start, with a calculator and an adding machine, tracking down what people received from other sources, other funds, other help from relatives, savings. This is a separate fund. The donors certainly didn't intend to have the administrator delve into the personal financial circumstances of the claimants. The donors sent in money, paid to the order of the help the victims, and that's what we're doing.
CONAN: Do the victims include the businesses on Boylston Street?
FEINBERG: Another - no. I don't - we don't have enough money. I mean the idea that that stores, right on Boylston, that lost a week or two of business, wages for their employees, business interruption - they couldn't achieve revenue. We can't start going down the road of compensating businesses with lost income or individuals who lost wages. It would take too long. There's not enough money. We would have to examine the business records of each store. That is not what this fund is about.
CONAN: And once you've made your decision, is it final? Is there any court of appeal?
FEINBERG: There's no appeal. Although in this case, I must say, that in this protocol, you'll notice that that my recommendations have to be ratified and approved by the city of Boston. That doesn't mean that people can appeal to the city of Boston. That means that my spreadsheet on June 30 will go to the city, and the city will review it. I don't know who. The city administration will have to sign off on the recommendations. I expect that they will do so.
CONAN: So there will be political accountability.
FEINBERG: I think that's right.
CONAN: And as you look at this, are you on track to make these decisions? I know that there's any - these are really hard.
FEINBERG: They're very hard, and we'll going to run into problems. I know there are going to be problems with the one amputation versus two, above the knee, below the knee. I can't get my medical records, my hospital record. Mr. Feinberg, give me more time. There are going to be all sorts of administrative nightmares here. But my first order of business from the - personally, from the mayor, Menino, and the governor, Patrick, get the money out the door by June 30, and we will do so.
CONAN: We're talking with Ken Feinberg, the special master administrator of The One Fund Boston, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's a tweet from one of our listeners - Sonny Sagisi(ph), I guess - are you telling the victims don't - that don't have insurance have to pay their bills? Aren't the hospitals going to donate that care?
FEINBERG: That's up to the physically injured and the hospital. I have enough challenges without making demands or suggestions to hospitals. My understanding is - very good question - that the hospitals - and I don't speak for all of them or any of them - but I understand that the hospitals are reviewing their policies concerning whether and to what extent to charge for medical services in these cases.
CONAN: Let's go to Steve(ph). Steve is on the line with us from Shrewsbury in Massachusetts. Steve, you there?
STEVE: Yes, I am.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.
STEVE: First of all, I'd like to express my admiration for Mr. Feinberg for all the work he's done, and my question is: In terms of deciding how much to reimburse the victims who have serious medical injuries, I assume that takes into account their financial losses, the cost of prosthetic devices, et cetera; and I'm wondering how you thought about the process of determining how much to offer people who lost loved ones because I assume that's not a financial decision at all.
FEINBERG: You've asked a couple of questions. First, we will not look into the cost of medical care in individual cases, including the cost of a prosthetic device. We will determine how much money there is to distribute, and then we will make a - I guess you'd call it somewhat of a Solomonic(ph) judgment as to how much should be reserved for those who died, the families of those who died, those who were double amputees. The current final protocol provides the top priority of payment to the families of - the four families who lost loved ones and those who were double amputees or suffered permanent brain damage.
That category is the top category for the most compensation out of the 30 million. The next category - somewhat less - single amputation. And then the category after that, the third category - somewhat less - how long were you in the hospital? Those in the hospital longest, presumably have the most serious injuries and will receive more than those in the hospital for one or two days. And then the final category, eligibility, the lowest category, but compensable, outpatient hospital treatment, emergency treatment at the hospitals. Those are the categories of eligibility. You have to file your claim. Each one of the individuals who satisfy one of those categories will be paid.
CONAN: In that top category - and, Steve, thanks very much for the call. In that top category, you have very different people, those who were killed, including an eight-year-old boy, a police officer with a family. Is - they're the same payout for every one?
FEINBERG: I've learned over the years, Neal, you try telling a family that lost, say, an eight-year-old instead of a - somebody who lost a wage-earner that that life is worth less. I'm not going there. And we concluded many years ago with Aurora and Virginia Tech that when it comes to lost loved ones, all lives are equal.
CONAN: One last call, we'll go to Mark(ph), and Mark is on the line with us from Nashville. We just have about a minute, Mark.
MARK: OK. I just wanted to paraphrase from Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." She said there are people in this society who are born to do the tasks that no one else wants to do. I believe Mr. Feinberg is one of those people, and we owe him an immense debt of gratitude.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much. And, Mr. Feinberg, I will thank you on his behalf. Thank you very much for the phone call. And, Ken Feinberg, I do not envy you the decisions you have to make in the next weeks, but good luck.
FEINBERG: Thank you very much and thanks for having me on to explain this program. I think it's helpful to the public.
CONAN: Ken Feinberg, the special master of the fund, including for the 9/11 attacks, the VA Tech shootings and now for The One Fund Boston. Coming up, President Obama said it again today: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Former Ambassador Christopher Hill will join us next to explain why diplomacy is rarely so black and white, and when we should talk with monsters. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.