MetLife Inc Chief Executive Robert Henrikson on Friday said the economic crisis has made it imperative that the life insurance industry be given a voice in Washington.

The CEO of the largest U.S. life insurer, speaking at the Sanford Strategic Decisions Conference, raised the issue amid a growing debate over whether the current state-by-state system of U.S. insurance regulation needs to be paired with or replaced by a federal regulator.

For life insurers, this has become a particularly pressing issue. Up to a dozen carriers scrambled to buy banks or savings and loan institutions last year in order to become eligible for government aid, much needed as capital was eroded by investment losses.

New York-based MetLife did not seek federal funding and was already federally regulated because of its ownership of MetLife Bank.

Henrikson said a more uniform system for regulating insurers was needed, including some form of insurance office in the U.S. capital.

You have to have somebody to blackberry, he said. The life insurance industry has no one ... We did not realize how important that would be when stuff hit the fan.

The U.S. Treasury recently said it would make aid available to select life insurers. Some companies, including Hartford Financial Services Group Inc , are expected to accept the assistance, while others have rejected it.

Life insurers argued that, like banks, they should be extended help, partly because of the trillions of dollars they plow into U.S. corporate and government bonds.

Some believe the spotlight put on insurer American International Group Inc , recipient of up to $180 billion in bailout funds, will increase support for a federal regulatory option.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Melissa Bean, a Democrat, and Ed Royce, a Republican, that would give insurers the option of federal or state regulation.

A regulatory blueprint drawn up under former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson last year called for a federal Office of Insurance Information, another option.

Similar initiatives have failed to pass Congress in the past, in part due to opposition from states and consumer groups who fear higher rates and weakened consumer protection. Some insurers, including many mutual companies, are also opposed.

But MetLife and others are pushing for change. The American Council of Life Insurers, an influential trade group, has called for development of a strong, streamlined insurance regulatory system.

The trade group represents companies including AIG, Hartford Financial, Assurant Inc and Lincoln National Corp .

The American Insurance Association, a group of 350 property-casualty insurers, including Travelers Cos Inc and Chubb Corp and Ace Ltd , has endorsed creation of a federal insurance regulator.

(Reporting by Lilla Zuill; editing by John Wallace)