Watch This Woman!

Insurance Commish Deborah Senn turns political Lap-Dog into watch-dog. What's Next?

“I’m always getting sued,” complains Deborah Senn, Washington state’s first female Insurance Commissioner. But her lament is also a boast: Senn has made a career of taking on the business establishment and advocating—some say too vigorously—plans for reform.

Reelected as commissioner this year for her second term, Senn, together with her staff, is responsible for holding the insurance companies to the law, collecting millions in taxes and responding to thousands of customer complaints. More central to Senn’s vision, however, is correcting the system’s failure to protect consumers.

“Sure, I can just coast now and not get people mad at me,” says the battled-hardened Senn about her second term. “But I won’t.” This time around she has set her sights on including alternative medicines in health coverage, pursuing insurance claims by Holocaust survivors, and ending insurance discrimination against victims of domestic violence. An editorial-writer for the conservative Spokesman-Review in Spokane even conceded, ” [Senn has] brought new ferocity to her agency, which used to function like a lap-dog.”

With ink-black, spiky hair, cut at a chic salon while she talks on her cell phone, Senn is a classic “type A.” At home she uses call-waiting heavily, usually with TV remote in hand to surf channels for news coverage. She flies to as many as five cities in a week to speak to consumer groups and health providers to build support for and publicize her issues.

After battling the utilities in Illinois and drafting legislation for Washington state regulating telephone solicitors and lowering phone rates for low-income people, Senn ran for Insurance Commissioner in 1992. She took on a “good old boy,” a 16-year incumbent who was often seen golfing and who could be depended on to regularly approved rate increases for the insurance industry. The cash-strapped Senn, by contrast, pledged to take no contributions “from anyone regulated by the Commissioner’s office, including agents and brokers”—though it would have been legal. The literature of her campaign asked, “What has your insurance commissioner done for you lately?” State-wide, Washington politics are more conservative than those in the liberal Seattle area, and that year Senn was the only statewide candidate to defeat an incumbent.

Going into her second term, Senn has taken on the cause of victims of domestic violence, who according to a publication covering the industry, Claims, are protected in 15 states. “This is the thing,” she says in a confidential voice that betrays her distaste. She explains that insurance companies consider partners of batterers, usually women, more likely to file claims—for damage to themselves, their homes and cars. Fear of losing insurance, she says, might inhibit a woman from reporting the abuse. Twice, the insurance industry has successfully lobbied against Senn’s proposed legislation to prevent such discrimination. Now industry groups have put forward two proposals of their own, both of which Senn finds lacking.

“There’s no documented evidence,” claims Phil Nudel man, head of the Kaiser-Group Health HMO, “even anecdotal, that anyone’s been denied coverage or had their rates go up” after being identified as victims of domestic abuse.” Nevertheless, a report put jointly by the Women’s Law Project and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic violence documents 23 discrimination cases nation-wide.

Senn’s reforms have not made her popular with the insurance companies, who have repeatedly sued her, particularly over her refusal to grant rate hikes. Unlike her predecessor, Senn is widely viewed as uncooperative, Chicago tough and a solo player. “I wish when she has a problem, she’d call the, insurance providers together and ask what we can do,” commented a CEO of one major insurance company on condition of anonymity. “She seems to believe she can get more out of an adversarial than a collaborative and cooperative relationship.”

Employees who date from the previous regime have also taken issue with Senn, filing more than 150 grievances over matters such as whether Senn improperly granted a staff member an afternoon off. All the claims were found to be without merit and thrown out.

With Washington’s two-term limit, Senn is now looking for new outlets for her energies. Though the insurance industry may object to Senn, onetime political consultant Karen Cooper (now State Executive Director of NARAL) says, “If there were a poll tomorrow, Deborah would probably be the most popular politician in the state.” The state’s Democratic governor, Gary Locke, is expected to run for a second term, so friends have been urging Senn instead to take on Republican Senator Slade Gordon in 2,000.

Perhaps presciently, two years ago, in a revue to raise money for Democratic candidates, Senn, in a leather jacket, mini-skirt and boots, spoofed herself, singing satirical lyrics to “Fame”: “Demos look at me, and tell me what you see. You ain’t seen the best of me yet.”

Carole Glickfeld is the Seattle-based author of Useful Gifts, a collection of stories about a family with deaf parents and hearing children.