February 5, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Washington insurance commissioner should remain an elected office


Washington residents have elected the state insurance commissioner since 1947. After six consecutive elections in which they were not able to retain or win the office, Republicans say they have a better idea.

No, they don’t.

Senate Bill 6458 would eliminate the office held for 13 years by Democrat Mike Kreidler and replace it with an appointed 10-person board, and a director who would assume the executive duties of the commissioner. The majority and minority caucuses of the House and Senate would send three nominees to the governor, with each caucus required to send a specialist in a different area of insurance; an actuary named by the House minority, for example, or a consumer advocate from the Senate majority.

Primary sponsor Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, says board members with a range of expertise would be more responsive than an individual commissioner. She and one witness at a Monday hearing on the bill expressed particular frustration with a Kreidler decision, pre-Affordable Care Act, regarding prescription drugs that resulted in one company’s withdrawal of that benefit.

That’s it, and that’s unfortunate, but Kreidler was following his staff’s interpretation of state law.

As commissioner, he and a staff of more than 200 oversee 2,300 companies and 115,000 agents competing for a slice of the state’s $32 billion insurance market. The commissioner assures those companies are financially strong, charge appropriate rates and provide the coverage consumers pay for. Agents must be trained and licensed.

The office’s $52 million biennial budget is funded with surcharges on insurance premiums. Licensing fees, premium taxes and other revenues the office collects funnel more than $900 million biennially into the state’s general fund.

No audit since 1994 has found fault with the office’s management of those monies.

Kreidler has been a consistently strong champion for consumers, most notably in rejecting an attempt by Premera Blue Cross to become a public company in 2004, but also in trying to reclaim huge surpluses held by Washington health insurers. He was an advocate for Obamacare before there was Obamacare, and is partly responsible for the success of Washington’s health care exchange.

His insistence that insurance companies participating in the exchange dot all “i’s” and cross all “t’s” was too rigid, but some plans rejected initially were eventually admitted. When President Barack Obama buckled on the grandfathering of existing plans, Kreidler rejected the change because it would make hash of underwriting already contending with a very uncertain market.

It was the right call, but Republicans want to reverse that decision, too.

Although Becker asserts Kreidler has been unresponsive to consumer concerns, Washington voters have returned him to office three times; by a 58 percent to 41 percent margin in 2012. Republicans are bidding to get a share of control by replacing the commissioner with an appointed board, but what they really need to do is field a competitive candidate.

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