The Obama administration is pressing U.S. states to curb insurers’ use of fine print in contracts that bars unsatisfied customers from suing, taking the latest step against “mandatory arbitration clauses” in an insurance report released by the Treasury Department on Monday.
The federal government does not regulate insurance companies or products. Each state has its own oversight process. But in recent years, the U.S. government has dipped its toe into regulating the industry, most notably by identifying some insurers as “too big to fail,” a label triggering additional capital requirements.
In its report, the Treasury Department says states should “consider developing appropriate constraints on mandatory arbitration clauses in insurance contracts.”
“State policymakers and insurance regulators should assess whether the current lack of uniformity in state laws and regulations raises questions about whether state consumer protections for insurance consumers should better align with those afforded to the consumers of other financial products and services,” it also said.
The clauses are recent additions to many contracts, including those for cellphones and nursing homes. In order to open accounts, customers must agree that they will take any future dispute to an independent arbitrator, often selected by the company, instead of joining a class-action lawsuit.
Critics of arbitration say that it is often conducted in secret, denying customers due process or a legal precedent, and that arbitrators have cause to rule in the company’s favor. Supporters say it is quicker than lawsuits and more of the money in a settlement goes directly to a customer than in class-action lawsuits, where people band together to sue.
In May, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in 2010, proposed a rule that would only allow optional arbitration clauses in contracts in sectors the agency oversees. More recently, the U.S. Department of Education finalized rules barring the clauses in contracts for for-profit colleges.
Meanwhile, customers hoping to sue Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) over the opening of bogus accounts in their names have found that the fine print meant they agreed to take claims to an arbitrator instead of a courtroom.