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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Senn for attorney general? Consider her previous gig


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Attorney General Deborah Senn. Visualize that.

From 1993 to 2000, Washington got to know Insurance Commissioner Senn. She was feisty and bellicose. A Times profile noted in 1999, "A large movie poster of 'The Untouchables' looms above Senn's desk. 'You want to get Capone?' a note on the poster says. 'Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way.' "

Senn is from Chicago — and that was her way, especially with the insurance companies. Ralph Nader called her the best insurance commissioner in America. Now, after four years out of office, she seeks to be elected as state attorney general, an office with power second only to the governor's. She is already talking about being "the people's attorney general" and going after the gasoline producers, drug companies and money lenders.

That plays well with a lot of Democrats. How it plays in practice may be different. Consider the story of the individual market for health insurance.

This is a market for working-age people who can't get coverage through an employer. Traditionally, coverage was available at good prices only to people who were healthy. That limitation offended the progressive mind, and in 1994, Senn ordered that individual coverage be the same price for all. That meant AIDS patients could buy coverage of their drug and doctor bills at the same price as healthy adults.

Also, she ordered that policies cover pre-existing health conditions after three months. That meant that a woman could wait until pregnancy before buying maternity coverage.

For those folks, she had done a wonderful thing. But it was financially unsustainable, and it ultimately wrecked the market.

In November 1998, Premera Blue Cross, which had 60 percent of the individual market, shut the door to new business. It said it had lost $70 million, and wanted no more. Senn called the pullout "an arrogant and outrageous attempt to create a false crisis in order to win concessions from the state and cover up its own poor management."

In September 1999, Regence and Group Health pulled out. The individual market was dead. No seller entered for 15 months, which shows that the crisis was not false.

The market opened only after the companies negotiated a new set of rules with Gov. Gary Locke. Now, the sickest 8 percent of people pay more, and pregnancy coverage has to be purchased before the pregnancy. In a slap at Senn, the new system took away the insurance commissioner's authority to regulate rates.

Senn was not in on the key negotiations. She opposed the changes, but she had lost the support of key Democrats and the bill passed the Legislature. Today, she says the changes Locke accepted were "draconian." She defends her stand, saying that in her eight years as insurance commissioner, the percentage of Washingtonians covered by health insurance went up, and that since she left it has gone down. (That is true, though the decline is about 1 percentage point and the recession may be the cause.)

The story of the individual market shows several things. First, Senn is unsympathetic to the legitimate needs of business. Second, in disdaining half a loaf she can sometimes get none. But what the political folks say is that she is thoroughly political — as one critic puts it: "all Deborah, all the time."

I asked her if she is too political. "I don't know what that means," she said. "Was it political for Chris Gregoire to get the tobacco settlement?"

I asked Gov. Locke about the race and he said, "The last thing you want in the attorney general's office is a political agenda."

Was that a criticism of Senn? Hmm, he said. He was not criticizing anybody; Senn was a champion of the consumer and if she is nominated by the Democratic Party he will support her. But for that nomination, he is supporting her opponent, former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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