INSURANCE AGENTS PRESS FOR REFORM

INSURANCE AGENTS PRESS FOR REFORM

Half a century after initiating a call for reform of insurance agent/broker licensing laws, agent groups around the country are pushing their leaders to

put up or shut up.

"Not all players, throughout the years, have been totally committed to reform," said Ken Crerar, executive vice president of the National Association of Casualty and Surety Agents in Washington.He said some negotiators who promised to reform laws that prevent agents

from operating in various states followed their own personal agendas instead of adhering to the agenda of agent groups. "We'll work with anyone to get the system cleaned up," he said.

That "anyone" refers to the federal government. Not long ago, agents/ brokers treated the federal government like in-laws who always overstayed their welcome and who always left a mess for the hosts to clean up.

The acknowledgment that government could play a positive role in changing how agents/brokers deal with state insurance regulators could show how desperate they are to solve the problem.

An example of the problem can be found in Maryland, said Patricia Borowski, senior vice president of the Professional Insurance Agents in Alexandria, Va.

In Maryland, she said, agents licensed in any other state or jurisdiction are restricted from conducting business - they can't sign contracts, and in some states, can't collect commissions.

Yvonne House, administrative officer in the agent licensing division, said Maryland's countersignature law is retaliatory. Maryland requires the signature of a resident agent on contracts drawn by a non-resident agent if the non-resident agent's home state requires a countersignature.

The countersigning agent is usually not held responsible for the contract. Non-resident agents usually contract with resident agents with whom a longstanding relationship has been formed.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, considered the proverbial thorn in the insurance industry's side, has proposed establishing a clearinghouse, called the National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers, to allow agents to request and receive licenses in all states where the agents apply. Under the proposal, states could revoke licenses and prevent the issuance of a license if the agent is involved in wrongdoing.

Registration under the proposed system would be optional for agents active only in one state. State regulators' acquiescence would not be optional.

"There are some people who are opposed to it. Others feel it is a solution to the problem. We're not sure business can afford to wait a little longer," Mr. Crerar said.

Agents want to change the residency law in Maryland and other states so that once an agent is registered in one state, the agent can work in any state or jurisdiction in the country.

"We want to look at making a system that is more equitable among various types of market approaches," Ms. Borowski said.

Several states in the Midwest and Southwest are negotiating a system in which agents can work without residency requirements, Ms. Borowski said. In the Midwest, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Michigan are working on an agreement.

In the Southeast, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Alabama are working toward the same goal. "These states have formed the rock- bed of the direction in which we're going in today," Ms. Borowski said.

"We fully expect in five years we will have completed the project. If everyone remains excited and dedicated, it will happen sooner than five years," Ms. Borowski said.

Again, promises of reform are met with guarded skepticism. "This has been an issue for years. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has looked at this in one form or another for 20 years," said Charlie McCrann, vice president of federal affairs for the Independent Insurance Agents of America in Arlington, Va.

"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. We want to maintain state agents license and the jurisdiction of state commissioners," he said.

Mr. McCrann's group proposes that the commissioner group and the National Council of Insurance Legislators hammer out model laws, proposals enforced by peer pressure among state insurance regulators, to secure self-rule among state insurance regulators and spare insurance agents federal involvement in their business.

The importance of the licensing problem is realized when Ms. Borowski pointed out that in her group alone there are 25,000 agencies, three-quarters of which conduct business in multiple jurisdictions.

"Every day of the year you have to have someone renewing the agency's license," said Mary Lanning, executive director of the New York Association of Insurance Brokers.

Ms. Lanning joined the call of Ms. Borowski and Mr. McCrann for the commissioner group to use its leverage in inducing states to ease barriers. The three separately agreed that protectionist attitudes also had to be changed.

"If the licensing system is to protect consumers, then we're for that. If it is to protect agents, then we're not for that. Competition is healthy," Mr. Crerar said.

Agents say licensing fees are the No. 1 one cost facing their agencies. In a survey conducted by NACSA, agents said administration costs for multiple offices are more than $500,000 a year.

Agents are also concerned about continuing education requirements that vary nationwide. For example, identical continuing education courses may be worth two credits in one state, 19 credits in another state and 16 credits in a third.