State insurance laws and commissions have "serious shortcomings" when it comes to protecting the interests of consumers, according to a General Accounting Office study released yesterday. However, the watchdog agency stopped short of recommending federal regulation of the industry.

The 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act gives states the sole power to regulate insurance. Yet because of alleged abuses, sentiment is mounting on Captiol Hill for repealing or amending the act.

Among the findings were:

Most states haven't instituted the changes in financial reporting recommended five years ago by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Half of the commissioners either come from industry or join insurance companies after leaving office.

There is little difference in the price of automobile insurance between the states that regulate rates and those that don't.

The GAO calls for more price competition among insurers and questions the propriety of auto risk classifications, especially geographical ones.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who has led many hearings on insurance company abuses, spoke yesterday about the resulting price differentials:

"An insurance commissioner testified that a wealthy suburbanite with several accidents could pay as little as $200 for full auto insurance coverage. Identical coverage on an identical car would cost $2,500 for another driver with a perfect record for over seven years -- if that driver happened to be male, 24 years old, and a resident of an urban neighborhood."

An NAIC spokesman emphasized yesterday that rate classification is a very complicated subject. David Brummond said he feels that the GAO report, which he had seen only in draft form, doesn't give both sides of the story fairly. He also criticized the GAO's "revolving door" charge and noted that many commissioners feel they are consumer representatives in their states.

The study was conducted in 17 states outside this area. It concentrated on auto insurance because this kind of insurance varies so much from state to state and has become highly controversial. As for price comparisons, the GAO observed that consumers now have little information and recommended that companies might be required to publish data on prices and complaint ratios.

As for calculating rates on the bases of sex, age and marital status, the GAO deferred to the Federal Trade Commission which is developing a model classification to see if they can be excluded. Metzenbaum mentioned the effects of this type of risk evaluation citing the case of a woman whose rates went up 86 percent solely because her husband died.

The GAO chided the NAIC for not following through on its own task force's recommendations for change, and that "uniform remedies to deficiencies in the current classification system probably will have to come about through federal legislation."

Yet because of the sensitive constitutional issue that repeal or amendment of McCarran-Ferguson raises -- subcommittee member Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) adamantly opposes any diminution of states rights -- the GAO leaves it squarely up to Congress.

For his part, Metzenbaum acknowledged that his staff already has drawn up a 40-page bill repealing McCarran-Ferguson while setting national standards, but he insisted that it doesn't necessarily represent his views and maintained he still is studying the matter.