At Last, A New Commissioner for Washington

By | February 12, 2001

There won’t actually be a lovefest between the insurance industry and new Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler; it will just seem that way by comparison. After eight years of Deborah Senn, the industry probably will need some prodding to fling open its arms to embrace a commissioner whose standing on the political continuum is not that different from Senn’s.

There are, however, more than a few influential members of the Washington insurance community who view Kreidler as not just a breath, but a gasp of fresh air. Someone with whom they can have a productive dialogue and, in a marked departure from Senn’s administration, disagree politely.

Rest assured, there will be disagreements, certainly on healthcare reform, probably on privacy issues. But Kreidler will use his bully pulpit in a far more collegial way than Senn did.

Eight years ago, she came to office looking to make waves, to be at the forefront of a healthcare reform revolution. And she was, of the revolution that brought Clintonian managed competition to Washington State in 1993, and as an opponent of the counter-revolution in which the Republicans, having gained a majority in both houses of the Legislature in 1994, systematically dismantled the reform.

Now, Washington, with a steadily raising number of people without health insurance and an individual market only recently returned to some semblance of functionality, is in need of another revolution. But Kreidler, who supported the Clinton-like reforms passed in 1993, knows this latest revolution must be a bipartisan one.

Unlike Senn, a first-time officeholder, Kreidler has been there (16 years in the Washington Legislature, two years in Congress), done that. He seems to understand that the commissioner is merely an advocate for reform, and that the Legislature must lead the charge.

During the campaign, when asked about his legislative agenda, Kreidler showed his profound pragmatism in a state divided right down the middle politically.

So his legislative agenda, he said, might not consist of anything more than clean-up bills—most specifically a measure, if needed, to provide funding to increase the pool of auditors in the commissioner’s office so that Washington can regain accreditation from the NAIC to oversee insurer solvency.

Kreidler not only brings a far different political perspective than Senn did, but a life one as well. Every business person and lobbyist for business interests has lamented at some point having to deal with Democrat legislators who have never run a business and have no clue what’s involved. Kreidler, an optometrist by profession, once spearheaded the formation of a community bank.

Throughout his campaign, even in its earliest stages, Kreidler emphasized this part of his background. He soon had the support of, and eventual financial backing from, influential insurance personages such as Bill Baldwin, former broker, current consultant, widely rumored Republican commissioner candidate and conservative of the widest stripe. Baldwin and others knew the GOP had little chance to win the commissioner’s post; in Kreidler, they at least found a Democrat they could understand.

In campaign debates, Kreidler probably cited the need for a healthy insurance market as often as did his Republican opponent, Don Davidson. While he didn’t use the words “speed-to-market,” Kreidler made it clear he favors structuring his office to make it easier for insurers to get rate and form filings approved.

Washington has long been seen, even before Senn took office, as a state where it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to get filings approved. There are more than a few people in the State Office of the Insurance Commissioner who are concerned that Kreidler might cut them off at the knees in reviewing applications. Read that last sentence again, and remember that Kreidler is a Democrat.

This is not to suggest that he is in any danger of becoming a lapdog to the industry he regulates. On the issue of privacy, Kreidler favors allowing consumers to opt in to the sharing of personal information among affiliated financial services entities, a position that could place him at odds with the insurance industry. But Kreidler offered this caveat to an opt-in system: “The thing we need to do is not disrupt the usual way commerce is conducted.”

In the past 10 years, the West Coast has seen and endured the anti-industry stances of Senn and John Garamendi, and seen problems fester into crises. By contrast, Kreidler shows every sign of bringing to the regulatory environment something that was sorely lacking in those administrations: balance.

Richard Rambeck, the former editor of InsuranceWeek magazine, has written about insurance issues for nearly a dozen years. He can be reached via e-mail at

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