Kudos to government for quickly launching a tribunal to handle insurance disputes in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The body — which was established by law last month and already has been appointed — will almost certainly be an important boon at a time when many customers have alleged unfair treatment at the hands of their insurers.

Too often, they have precious little recourse: Anyone without the time or money to mount an expensive legal battle tends to be at their provider’s mercy.

The new tribunal should help change that. The body will provide an avenue for mediation outside of the courts, and in cases where an agreement cannot be reached it will advise the customer on the way forward. It is also required to report any insurer’s wrongdoing to the regulator, the Financial Services Commission. These functions are much needed.

Still, none of this is to say that insurers in the Virgin Islands have necessarily been overstepping the rules. They are businesses, after all, and they have a responsibility to shareholders to turn a profit. Moreover, after an unprecedented storm like Irma, numerous customer complaints are inevitable.

But insurers are obliged to follow the law and to operate ethically, and recent complaints suggest that some of them may not have consistently upheld these standards.

Customers, though, also have obligations, which include reading the fine print when they sign up for insurance and thoroughly understanding their policies. Too often, we suspect, they cut corners, and thus arrive at unreasonable expectations only to be disappointed when disaster strikes.

Because a middle ground between insurers and customers is urgently needed, we hope the tribunal will start operating straightaway, and that it will work efficiently to process cases as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

This won’t be easy. Given the number of upset residents, the body’s five members surely will have their hands full. They should expect to receive dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints in the coming months.

To process them in a timely manner, the tribunal members will need to work tirelessly. Meanwhile, the government should provide all possible support, and consider provisions for emergency assistance — say, the addition of extra board members — if the workload proves overwhelming.

Currently, stories abound of recovery efforts that are stalled because of insurance issues. Though the tribunal will not be a panacea to such woes, it is a major step in the right direction.


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