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Editorial: Insurance changes will make this vote matter

The race for Washington insurance commissioner may be down the primary election ballot, but who wins may be as important to Washington residents as the outcome of contests getting much more attention.

Why? Because full-scale implementation of Obamacare, unless derailed by a new president and Congress, arrives in 2014. The radical transformation of the health insurance market will require substantial energy and insight from an insurance commissioner working closely with the state’s congressional delegation, the governor and Legislature, and insurance companies bidding for customers in new exchanges.

Incumbent Commissioner Mike Kreidler, a Democrat, has been a strong advocate for the exchanges, so much so that after the Legislature in March authorized one for Washington, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the state a $128 million grant to get one set up. Done well, an exchange will at least offer apples-to-apples comparisons for perplexed consumers.

Kreidler has instituted other measures to increase consumer understanding of how premiums are set. He has pressed, so far unsuccessfully, for legislation that would allow the insurance commissioner to take into account health insurance company surpluses in excess of $2 billion when setting rates. He had, several years ago, turned back an effort by Premera to become a for-profit company.

For those efforts and others, we have endorsed Kreidler for insurance commissioner in 2000, 2004, and 2008. We do so again for this primary. But in the interests of carrying on a conversation about Washington’s insurance market through the general election, we also endorse Republican Scott Reilly, who trains insurance agents and financial counselors at a school he owns in Bellevue.

Reilly says excessive regulation keeps insurance companies out of Washington, or discourages the sale of insurance products companies can sell in neighboring states, but not here. The tri-opoly of Regence, Premera and Group Health in health insurance is Exhibit A.

The commissioner’s office is too nitpicky and too slow, he says, in part because it has too few actuaries to evaluate filing, and too much other staff. Some changes will require action by the Legislature, he acknowledges, adding that he supports a bill that would inject surpluses into health insurance rate-setting.

The commissioner’s office itself collects far more money than necessary to cover its $47 million budget, with the surplus being swept into the general fund, Reilly says.

There are two other candidates: Auburn insurance broker Brian Berend, running as an independent; and Republican John Adams, a broker primarily of maritime insurance who has run before. Berend has some good ideas – allowing electronic filings to speed implementation, for example – but we think Reilly will be a more effective spokesman for a more competitive insurance market.

He and Kreidler will make a good general election match-up.

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