Huntington Bancshares will become the first major bank in Ohio to sell life and health insurance after getting the green light from state regulators last week.

The state insurance department approved the Columbus-based banking company's application for a license to sell life and health coverage - more than three years after Huntington filed it.

A decision on the application had been delayed by lawsuits filed by independent insurance agents.

Huntington plans to begin selling term and universal life insurance by the end of June, said William K. Browning, president of Huntington Life Insurance Agency, the insurance unit of the company's state-chartered Ohio bank.

Midland Life Insurance Co., Transamerica Corp., and Aetna Life and Casualty Co. will underwrite the life insurance products, he said.

Although $500 million-asset Peoples Bancorp, Marietta, Ohio, got an Ohio life insurance license last year, Huntington is the first formidable bank competitor to traditional insurance agents in the state. Observers warned, however, that an early lead does not guarantee success.

"They're going to be up against some really good banks in Banc One and KeyCorp" soon, said Kenneth Kehrer, president of Kenneth Kehrer Associates, Princeton, N.J.

Huntington will begin by selling insurance through its force of licensed investment representatives. Later, it plans to hire experienced insurance specialists to supplement the effort, Mr. Browning said.

The bank also plans to use direct mail and its sophisticated 24-hour automated branches to sell directly to consumers.

The technologically innovative bank may eventually offer the products over the Internet, Mr. Browning said. "There's no one way to do this," he explained. "We have to be involved in various distribution systems."

Later, Huntington plans to sell health insurance to both individuals and businesses, he said. But negotiations with health insurance underwriters have not been completed.

"The issuance of the license came unexpectedly" May 21, Mr. Browning said, "so we're working on a lot of things here. We thought we were close on many other occasions."

The Ohio insurance department would not act on Huntington's application until litigation against it had been cleared, said Daniel W. Morton, counsel to Huntington National Bank.

But those suits were either dismissed or their claims denied, he explained, clearing the way for the state regulatory decision.

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