WASHINGTON Rebutting financial services lobbyists who are seeking to federalize insurance oversight, a top state regulator said in an interview that she and her peers are still the most qualified to do the job.
Kathleen Sebelius, the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, said that plans being circulated by the American Council of Life Insurers and others to establish an optional federal insurance charter would be a mistake.
Members of the NAIC have been working together the past 12 months to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system of state insurance regulation, Ms. Sebelius, who is also the Kansas insurance commissioner, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the ACLI has spent the past 12 months dreaming up a federal bureaucracy that, from what weve seen, is a plan that relates only to life insurance.
The ACLI began querying members last month on whether they want to pursue a national charter. The American Bankers Insurance Association has floated a similar plan in the last two years.
The life insurers draft plan mimics the dual banking system by envisioning a federal regulatory framework for national insurance companies that would coexist with an updated state regulatory system.
The ACLI has no higher priority than the reform of state regulation and will continue to work with the NAIC to that end, a spokesman for the group said.
Ms. Sebelius responded that that kind of two-tiered system brings with it all kinds of questions and concerns.
For example, some health insurers are not subject to state law because federal law preempts self-insurance plans, she explained. Her office cannot help people with complaints or act against companies in such cases.
The NAICs primary concern is protecting consumers and ensuring the solvency of insurance companies, she said. Any debate whether it be at the state or federal level must keep the interests of consumers as priority number one.
Though proponents have stressed that the benefit of a two-tiered plan is its flexibility some companies would remain state-chartered while those that need to work across all 50 states would opt for the federal charter Ms. Sebelius said she fears some companies have ulterior motives.
Im worried that there is a segment of the industry that just wants less regulation, she said. The notion that you would shop around for your regulator in this sort of race to the bottom does not instill confidence that companies are looking for stringent regulation or more consumer protection.
Critics of state regulation have asked whether consumers really care which level of government protects them.
Ms. Sebelius said people feel more comfortable bringing their complaints to a state office. If they felt they had to track down a bureaucrat in faraway Washington, she said, they might be deterred.
I would debate with anyone who thinks a federal system would be more responsive, she said.
She went on to say that by nature federal regulation has to be one-size-fits-all, which does not suit the insurance industry well.
Insurance products are local products, and consumers have local needs, she said. What works in Kansas doesnt necessarily work so well in California or New York. State insurance commissioners have the ability to be sensitive to that.
Ms. Sebelius said she understands the industrys desire for more streamlined and efficient regulation. However, she said, she believes the NAIC has proposals in the works that would improve the current system and make a federal charter unnecessary.
The NAIC last year considered an option that would have established national standards for companies that want to operate in several states but not have to abide by each states individual requirements. The idea was ultimately dropped because the group decided it would be too complicated.
Instead, the group has gotten 47 states to agree to a uniform application process. Whether a company sets up shop in California or New York, it can fill out the same paperwork. If it wants to operate in all 50 states, it would still have to file applications with each states insurance commissioner but could fill out one form and copy it 46 times. Currently, each state uses a slightly different form.
The recommendation was part of a nine-point reform plan the group unveiled last year.
The group hopes to get all states to agree to use the uniform application form by next month.