Deborah Senn, Washington’s first woman insurance commissioner who was known as an advocate for health justice, died at 72 on Friday, her husband Rudi Bertschi confirmed.
Senn was remembered as a tenacious consumer advocate who stood up for individuals against insurance companies. She was known for becoming personally involved in the cases of individuals being denied potentially lifesaving medical care. She also sponsored legislation ending insurance discrimination against domestic-violence victims and was an advocate for Holocaust victims denied insurance benefits.
During her tenure as insurance commissioner, Senn put in place regulations meant to speed up insurance companies’ handling of environmental cleanup claims.
Senn was the first woman to be elected insurance commissioner of Washington, defeating incumbent Richard Marquardt in 1992. She was reelected in 1996.
“She wanted to help people gain access to affordable and comprehensive health coverage. That’s why she first ran,” Bertschi said.
Her subsequent bids for elected office were unsuccessful, losing to Maria Cantwell in the 2000 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate and to Rob McKenna in the 2004 general election for Washington attorney general.
She depicted that hard-fought campaign for attorney general in a one-woman theater production called “Until the Last Dog Dies” in 2009.
Senn’s hard-charging style drew criticism, even from within her own party. But consumer advocate and political candidate Ralph Nader called her “the best insurance commissioner in the U.S., hands down,” in a profile in Seattle Weekly during her campaign for Senate.
Greg Scully, who worked on Senn’s campaign for insurance commissioner in 1992 and became her chief deputy insurance commissioner, said Senn transformed the office into a proactive watchdog and worked from a belief that governments could do good for ordinary people.
On the day of her swearing in, the state was struck by a fierce windstorm that knocked out power and caused damage. Senn sprung into action and saw that people had help.
A few years later, a series of fires in Central Washington destroyed homes, and Senn sent a team directly there to help people process claims, an unheard-of move for the government office at the time, Scully said.
“We didn’t just sit there waiting for them to make a phone call to us,” he said.
Scully described Senn as a smart, tough and fair commissioner who also had a terrific sense of humor and cared deeply for her staff.
For someone’s birthdays, promotions or retirements, Senn would read a “top 10” list in the style of the “Late Show with David Letterman” and present them with a framed copy. If a staff member got sick or lost a family member, Senn would drop everything to call them or stop by their desk, Scully said.
In a statement, current Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said Senn’s efforts to “channel her authority into such a power of good” inspired him to run for the office.
“She embraced her role and used it to improve people’s lives and give voice to the unheard,” Kreidler said.
After leaving office, Senn advised emerging democracies on insurance regulation as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Treasury, according to a Legacy Washington profile of Senn posted on the Washington secretary of state’s website. She also taught health care law at Loyola University, Bertschi said.
Deborah Mandel Senn was born in Chicago on March 8, 1949. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She was married to Bertschi and moved to Washington in 1984.
She was active in several sports, including hiking, cycling and skiing, and was a passionate fan of baseball, football and tennis. Senn was also active in the Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith and her local Jewish community. Senn and her husband also bred and raised Vizsla dogs.
She died at Swedish Medical Center from complications related to pancreatic cancer, Bertschi said. Senn is survived by her husband, Bertschi, a brother and a sister.