Senn touts personal touch in her campaign for Senate
Seattle Times staff reporter
In seven years as the state's insurance commissioner, Deborah Senn has battled - loudly and often - what she calls the excesses and failings of insurance companies.
Now, battling for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, she leads an army of the sick and injured on the campaign trail - living testimony of her self-portrayal as a consumer advocate.
There is Victoria Doyle with a new heart. Ian Malone, an 11-month-old with brain damage who needs 16-hour-a-day nursing care. And James Ellison, a 38-year-old father of four who got the stem-cell transplant doctors believed might mitigate his multiple sclerosis.
In what has become a favorite speech, Senn retells Ellison's story to a group of union workers in Georgetown. She draws Blue Cross as the villain, "dragging it out for weeks" as the Covington man's condition deteriorated.
The audience is spellbound - all except a man in the front who squirms in his seat.
"Saved my life!" he explodes as he rises, grasps his cane and strides to the podium.
It's a healthy James Ellison, here to bear witness to Senn's victory over a faceless industry. Afterward, people swarm Senn in the hallway. "Just a minute," she waves away a reporter. "I've got another guy who needs a transplant."
Many who hear her stories are smitten by the motorcycle-riding commissioner who has built a reputation as a populist consumer advocate looking to score against the insurance establishment. This kind of direct customer service, she says, has primed her for the U.S. Senate.
Critics say the cases demonstrate only Senn's knack for media exposure. For example, in Ellison's case, Senn never got Blue Cross to cover the transplant. An anonymous donor paid the bill.
And while Senn championed the cause of the Malone baby, nursing care wasn't guaranteed until Vice President Al Gore told the family story at a political rally.
Detractors suggest headline grabbing keeps Senn from the mundane but necessary job of regulating insurance. Her tenure has hurt consumers, they say, as more and more insurers refuse to do business in Washington.
Senn dismisses her critics as industry shills.
"Who's complaining?" she asked. "I'm saving consumers money. That's what I'm supposed to do."
Senn's own insurance struggle
Senn, 51, earned a law degree in 1976 from Loyola University in her native Chicago. She was a staff attorney for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, prosecuting air- and water-pollution cases, then worked for the state of Illinois representing consumers and small businesses in utility cases.
In 1983 she followed husband Rudy Bertschi to Alaska, where she worked as a private attorney, then doing news and movie reviews for a local TV station.
Senn and her husband moved to Seattle two years later. She became a staff lawyer for a telecommunications committee in the Legislature, then a self-employed lobbyist for women's advocacy groups.
After she left state employment, she had to hunt for an individual insurance policy, a chore she found frustrating.
"I remember spreading out the policies on the table," she said. "I couldn't sort through them."
In 1990 Senn ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature. In 1992, when Democratic Party officials urged her to run for secretary of state, she said she'd rather help streamline the insurance industry as insurance commssioner.
"They had no candidate because no one had any idea what the insurance commissioner did," she said.
Senn's political timing was perfect: Presidential candidate Bill Clinton was making health care a top priority in his campaign.
War on `fat cats'
Senn has become something of a legend as Washington's top insurance cop. She bad-mouths insurance companies as fat cats out to bilk consumers, and issues news releases listing executives' six-figure salaries.
"She has a record of standing up to big business," said David Groves, a spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council. "She has a clear record of helping individuals solve problems when it comes to health care or denial of treatment."
She also has a record of being brash and difficult. She once blasted proposed insurance legislation while holding a bag of Gravy Train.
"She's like a tigress with her cubs when it comes to consumers," said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, a supporter.
Senn's predecessors viewed the job as helping insurers comply with complicated state laws. She sees it as protecting consumers from greedy insurers.
"More power to her - she did change the mentality of that office," said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. "Some of it was unfortunately a little too in-your-face, East Coast style."
Fairley said a shake-up was needed:
"She's the one who got out there and said this isn't about making business easier for the insurance companies. This is about protecting consumers."
During her tenure, Senn recovered some $20.6 million in refunds to consumers by having investigators expose insurer misconduct, according to her Olympia office.
And that doesn't include savings from denying rate increases, she says, or her consumer-education program and its toll-free consumer hotline, which, her office says, gets 200,000 calls a year.
Senn's Web site offers a "health-insurance consumer-action kit" and names companies she has penalized.
At the same time, she almost doubled the budget for her top administrators and public-relations staff, to $2.95 million last fiscal year. The office was in shambles, she said, and she needed money to bring it into the 1990s.
Critics maintain some of the extra work Senn took on was to aid her candidacy.
Three weeks ago, the State Executive Ethics Board fined Senn's chief spokesman $1,500 for what it said was campaigning for Senn on state time. He admitted no guilt.
Senn got scolded in 1997 by lawmakers and Attorney General Christine Gregoire when she tried to hire staff members with funds from a $700,000 fine she'd levied against an insurer. Under law, such fines go to the general fund.
Discontent among staff
None of it has stopped Senn's public-relations juggernaut. She issues so many press releases that reporters sharing an office in Olympia have designated a recycling bin just for her.
Inside the workplace, Senn isn't as popular as outside.
Many employees complain privately of an atmosphere of intimidation. They say Senn holds grudges and can be too demanding.
"Look, I work my staff hard. . . . I always say I won't ask them to work later than me," responds Senn, who works overtime regularly.
Employees also complain Senn hires based on politics, not experience. Her chief deputy, Robert Harkins, managed Senn's second campaign for commissioner. Her former chief deputy, Greg Scully, worked on her 1992 campaign.
"She seems to be cavalier and arrogant," said Bruce Zeller, council treasurer for the Washington Federation of State Employees. "She hasn't really recognized she has a problem."
About 45 of Senn's employees joined the state-employees union for the first time in 1995. About 30 still belong. The union snubbed Senn in April when it endorsed high-tech executive Maria Cantwell, her opponent in the Democratic Senate primary.
While Senn has attacked Cantwell on Internet-privacy issues, Cantwell has not returned fire on Senn's record. Her campaign declined comment for this story.
"She's been very proactive for consumers, but I've heard out here that some Democrats on the other end (of the insurance industry) are doing everything they can to work against her," said Carolyn McKern, chairwoman of the Stevens County Democrats and a Senn supporter. "They might even vote for (Republican incumbent U.S. Sen.) Slade Gorton."
Flap over accreditation
Senn's critics say an insurance commissioner should exhibit substance, not style. They are angry that she ended her office's association with a voluntary accreditation program last spring.
Through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, other states review insurers' financial reports and offer a stamp of approval. States accredited for property, casualty and life insurance under national standards then swap information rather than send auditors across state lines.
Senn insists accreditation has no impact on insurance sales and operations in Washington and said she didn't seek accreditation because she couldn't get money from the Legislature. But lawmakers throw the blame back on Senn, saying she failed to follow protocol.
Insurance-company lobbyist Kenton Brine says the flap reveals Senn's priorities:
"There is a lack of focus on the day-to-day business of being an insurance commissioner. . . . Are consumers who are enamored with her ability to make a lot of noise on a few key issues going to be sorry down the road?"
In the basement of her campaign headquarters in Lower Queen Anne last week, Senn spread out documents highlighting her victories.
"You've seen James Ellison, and I'm so proud of all the individual people we've helped," she said. "But this is what I'm most proud of. This is the legacy of this office and my legacy."
On her list: She battled insurance companies in court to save coverage of chiropractic and acupuncture. She helped push a law to protect victims of domestic violence from insurance-rate increases. She helped speed cleanup of toxic-waste sites covered by insurance. She created rules to help midwives find coverage.
Senn systematically denied rate rises or dickered with insurers until they lowered rate increases. She points to this as evidence of consumer advocacy and says no judge has never overturned her denials.
But critics say Senn sometimes sells more than she delivers.
In 1995 she made headlines when she announced she would reject a 36 percent rate increase Pierce County Medical had levied on its customers.
"There was a lot of press about unconscionable insurance companies," said Tim Parker, an attorney for several insurance companies.
Pierce County Medical appealed and demanded an official hearing. The day before the hearing, Senn quietly approved the increase. The process took 18 months and cost Pierce County Medical $1 million in attorney and actuary fees.
"It was clear at the get-go these rates were legitimate," Parker said. "This company was losing its shirt."
Regence BlueShield estimates Senn took three to seven months to approve every rate increase it filed from 1994 to 1999. In all but one case, the difference between the original request and the rate Senn approved was less than 3 percent, said Chris Bruzzo, a company spokesman.
"This much review and work . . . results in costs," he said. "And those costs get accounted for in the next rate increase."
Senn is proud she beat down rate increases - even when it was a tiny amount.
Insurers also complain that Senn's office takes months to process filings and demands excessive paperwork.
Senn says it is often insurers who delay cases and any extra cost for careful scrutiny is "a drop in the bucket" for the $18 billion-a-year industry:
"In balance we've held down rates," she said. " They're not fattening the rate filings anymore because they know we're going through them with a fine-toothed comb."
The Legislature last spring eliminated the insurance commissioner's power over some health-insurance rate increases.
Insurers assail get-tough tactics
As much as Senn blames insurers for high rates, insurers blame her for Washington's crisis in the individual-coverage market.
Under her watch, three of the biggest carriers in the state stopped selling policies to people not covered through an employer or organization. Consumers have been left with higher costs for fewer choices.
"She doesn't deserve all the blame, but she certainly deserves most of it," said veteran insurance lobbyist Basil Badley.
Rep. Eileen Cody, co-chairwoman of the House Health Care committee, disagrees. The Legislature undid health-care reforms, and that is the root of the crisis, she says.
"They use her as a scapegoat," said Cody, D-Seattle.
Senn says the insurers that fled were greedy. Last year she reopened the Washington State Health Insurance Pool, a last-resort fund for people rejected by carriers. She says she kept health-insurance premiums lower than national averages.
Critics charge Senn lets herself be distracted by popular causes not under her control. For example, she traveled the state to talk with senior citizens about Medicare coverage and she crusaded for the Holocaust Victims Relief fund, a measure the Legislature approved in 1999.
Insurance commission records show that Senn's office spent at least $5,000 on trips to Europe and New York for the measure, which, so far, has helped 18 state residents file claims with companies overseas. Senn said there are as many as 300 eligible claimants in Washington.
And Senn once announced, with front-page fanfare, that the state's four largest insurers were denying emergency-room coverage in violation of state law. The companies said Senn's accusations were based on shoddy research, and two have sued.
A rock anthem to Senn
Even when Senn's victories wear a human face, critics find her style grating. Rather than crusade for individuals such as James Ellison, they say, she should have started a public debate about how to help thousands like him.
"It would be appropriate for there to be a sound, sober discussion for what society expects to do about those kinds of questions, rather than be in flames and almost demonizing of various industries," said an industry official who asked not to be named.
Senn has a ready response. After learning of Ellison's situation, she says, she required companies to respond more quickly on disputed claims involving emergencies.
Both supporters and critics say Senn seems to be softening her battle against insurers.
"In the last several months we have seen some good collaboration with that office," said Bruzzo of Regence BlueShield. "We have been able to resolve some things in an amicable and positive fashion that were actually a benefit to consumers."
And the critics have a hard time outshouting the Deborah Senn fan club - a cadre of union members, the elderly and old-school Democrats.
"She's willing to fight for what she believes in, and that's always exciting when you see a candidate like that," said Rae Barnett, chairwoman of the Douglas County Democrats.
Indeed, what has bred notoriety within the insurance industry has spawned a funky populist following. Seattle rock band Rat Cat Hogan even wrote a song about her:
She says what gives, when will you give the people what they need?
. . . And even though she's wrong most of the time, she's on your side.
. . . I'd vote for her again, the Honorable Insurance Commission
If Senn did have an official fan club, the president would be James Ellison.
Since the stem-cell transplant, his condition has improved so much he has been able to join Senn on several campaign stops. He even rushed to a fund-raising breakfast in June, just hours after he'd been discharged from a hospital stay for the flu.
"Part of me didn't feel like coming," Ellison admitted as the event began. "But without Deborah Senn I would not be here today. . . . I would do anything for Deborah."
Dionne Searcey's phone message number is 206-464-2145. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Seattle Times campaign coverage, go to www.seattletimes.com.
The Democratic rivals for U.S. Senate both say their experience as executives made them ideal political leaders. Today, we examine Deborah Senn's role as state insurance commissioner. On Aug. 6, we looked at her rival, Maria Cantwell. The primary election is Sept. 19.
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