U.S. Insurance Office Bill Passes House Committee

National Underwriter News
November 30, 2009

WASHINGTON--Legislation creating a Federal Insurance Office within the Treasury Department was passed today by the House Financial Services Committee.

Congressional staff said they believe the House could begin debate on the bill as well as others dealing with financial services reform as early as next Wednesday.

Passed by voice vote, the measure is called the Federal Insurance Office Act, H.R. 2609. It contains specific language removing it from having any supervisory or regulatory authority over the business of insurance and bars the FIO from preempting state insurance laws governing rates, premiums, coverage requirements, antitrust laws, underwriting or sales practices.

The measure was altered considerably from that proposed by the Obama administration and later by the committee's Democratic leadership in order to win the support of state insurance regulators, insurance agents and small insurers.

Specifically, as passed by the committee, in addition to having no authority to regulate insurers, the FIO's ability to negotiate international agreements was also diminished.

The bill now requires the proposed FIO to share the authority to negotiate international agreements with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Moreover, any agreements reached would only be effective after a "layover" period during which time Congress would have the authority to take action.

The measure's language also provides for review in federal court for challenges brought against federal preemption of state insurance regulations.

The bill creates an office within the Treasury Department designed to coordinate dealing with international matters, provide information to the systemic risk regulator about potentially risky insurers, and collect data on insurance solvency.

David Sampson, president and chief executive officer of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), noted the changes made to win unanimous approval.

"We believe it is crucial that this legislation incorporates changes from both parties, because financial services regulatory reform will best benefit consumers if Democrats and Republicans work together to advance long-term solutions," Mr. Sampson said.

The revised bill was also lauded as acceptable by officials of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America.

Jimi Grande, NAMIC senior vice president of federal and political affairs, said, "This legislation has come a long way since the summer, when we had a number of major concerns with the broad powers granted to the office."

He added, "In addressing those concerns, the legislation has moved back toward its original purpose of providing insurance expertise and information to federal policymakers."

And Charles Symington, senior vice president of government relations for the IIABA, said, "While the IIABA believes that the state regulatory system should be preserved and reformed, it has become clear that the state system needs assistance to effectively address the inefficiencies that exist today in the regulation of insurance."

But, officials of the American Insurance Association said that while the legislation "is a good first step," the AIA "believes that the federal government still needs to have the ability to create and empower an office that will understand how the insurance industry works, how it handles risk, utilizes capital and meets the needs of its customers."

The new language on international agreements is a major concern to Leigh Ann Pusey, AIA president and CEO.

"A necessary element of this legislation is the authority to negotiate international agreements on prudential insurance matters," Ms. Pusey said.

"While we remain supportive of the creation of this office, we still have concerns that the language contained in the current version of this legislation will not provide the office with the adequate authority it needs," she said. "Without such authority, it could limit the federal government's ability to advocate our industry's interest at the international level," she added.

The bill passed by the committee also states that an "insurer" under a mandatory data collection provision does not include insurance agents and agencies.

"Without this amendment, the newly created FIO would have inadvertently had the ability to require countless agents, brokers and adjusters to produce any data and information that the FIO might demand," said Robert Rusbuldt, IIABA president & CEO.

Another amendment adopted by the committee would require the new agency to study and report to Congress in one year on how to modernize and improve the system of insurance regulation in the U.S.

The study would measure progress against six Obama administration principles for insurance regulatory reform.

At the same time, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the committee, said during debate on the measure that proposed legislation creating an optional federal charter for insurance remains on the table, and the committee will hold hearings on bills creating such a charter in the spring.

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