State and federal regulators approved a plan Monday to share consumer complaints about insurance sold by national banks.
The agreement, completed at a meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, calls for each state insurance commissioner to sign a complaint-sharing agreement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
The pact is a rare example of cooperation between the OCC and state insurance regulators. The two sides have fought bitterly in recent years for control over national banks' insurance sales.
That acrimony posed a problem in negotiations over a financial reform bill that would let insurance companies own banks and banks underwrite insurance.
Advocates of information sharing among regulators said that open lines of communication will be even more important if financial reform is enacted.
"With appropriate info-sharing agreements, we can show that functional regulation works even with 50 state (insurance) regulators," said George Nichols 3d, Kentucky's insurance commissioner and the association's vice president.
The association is pursuing similar complaint-sharing agreements with state bank regulators and federal thrift regulators, he said.
Under the model agreement, a state and the OCC would exchange copies of any complaint received about insurance sold locally by a national bank. In the past, some consumer complaints fell through the cracks because regulators ignored matters outside their jurisdictions, officials said.
The agreement, however, preserves the turf of state and federal regulators. State regulators would continue to investigate complaints about individual agents, whom they license. The OCC would handle problems found at national banks.
An OCC spokesman said demand for the agreement came in response to the wave of banks launching insurance sales operations in 1996, after a Supreme Court decision that gave federal regulators the right to override state laws that significantly restricted bank sales of insurance.
"Unless the state has allowed insurance sales in banks before 1996, you probably would not have had reason to deal with the OCC," Mr. Nichols said.
It took the OCC and the insurance commissioners group more than two years to produce the model agreement.
Eight insurance departments-in Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Oklahoma-were expected to sign agreements Monday.
Oklahoma's former commissioner had signed a similar complaint-sharing pact with the OCC in December. How much use the agreements will get is unclear. Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher said that neither the OCC nor his department has so far received any complaint about bank insurance sales.
Similarly, Kentucky's insurance department has received only five or six complaints, most of them minor, since deciding to let banks sell insurance in 1996.
Mr. Nichols of the association said the agreement is important because it proves that regulators can cooperate across industry and regional lines. He also said it offers "maximum protection for the consumer."