With their names etched in stone atop some of the largest buildings in Baltimore, insurance companies that have long since moved out of town but continue to be licensed here have been told to come home.
Maryland Insurance Commissioner Dwight K. Bartlett III ordered 13 insurers yesterday to return at least their key financial papers to Maryland if they want to continue calling the Free State home. Under terms of the order, the companies must re-establish permanent locations for the data by Jan. 1, 1994.
The problem is this: When insurance companies were bought and moved their operations to other states in the 1970s, they continued to be "domiciled" here, a legal term that gives Maryland primary regulatory responsibility over the firms.
The distances between Maryland and California, Texas, New York, Kansas, Michigan and Iowa have made it difficult for a Maryland examiner to drop in unannounced. Citing the additional cost and time, Maryland regulators stopped visiting the companies altogether last year, depending instead on regulators other states or private auditors.
"This practice seriously compromises the regulatory oversight of our) financial examiners, who often must travel long distances to remote locations to conduct examinations under less than optimal circumstances," Mr. Bartlett said.
A case in point is Sun Life Insurance Co. of America. Mr. Bartlett's predecessor, John A. Donaho, got in trouble after he accepted a limousine ride from Sun Life President Eli J. Broad to ferry Mr. Donaho to President Clinton's inauguration this year.
Mr. Donaho defended the ride and his attendance at the reception as less expensive to taxpayers than flying to California to discuss an audit he planned of Sun Life. (The audit, nearly completed, is being conducted by California regulators and private auditors contracted by Maryland regulators.)
Sun Life, founded in Baltimore in 1890, was purchased by a California company in 1971. It is a subsidiary of SunAmerica Inc., a $16 billion company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Sun Life and Clarendon National Insurance Co. of New York were the biggest companies affected by the order. Other companies include two Texas subsidiaries of Primerica Corp. and an Iowa subsidiary of Monumental Life of Baltimore, which is owned by AEGON Insurance Group of the Netherlands.
Maryland is home to 113 insurers that sell policies nationwide. Maryland and Delaware historically have attracted a large number of insurance companies, in part because of lenient tax laws and insurance regulations, said Gregory DuBose, communications associate for Weiss Research Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., insurance rating firm.
Mr. Bartlett is among regulators who are cracking down on absentee insurers and complaining about the difficulties of regulating companies that are housed out-of-state.
"There's a growing realization among regulators that it is a heck of lot easier to regulate a company across the street than across the country," said William H. McCartney, director of insurance for the state of Nebraska.
Mr. Bartlett said he acted in response to complaints from state insurance examiners who audit the companies, not because of financial trouble at any company.
"The whole justification for state rather than federal regulation of insurance is that it is possible for me to stay very close to the domestic companies and observe their operation and get ready access to their records," he said. "When the companies have their back office out of state, there's no way I can regulate them."
Mr. Bartlett predicted that most companies would seek a "home-state" license in the state where they are located rather than move operations here. It also is possible that the companies will argue that they have enough papers here to comply with the order, he said, adding that one firm already has asked for a hearing.