Deborah Senn, Washington’s first female insurance commissioner known to be a health justice advocate, died Friday at age 72, her husband Rudi Bertschi confirmed.
Senn is remembered as a tenacious consumer advocate who defended individuals against insurance companies. She was known to have become personally involved in cases of people being denied potentially life-saving medical care. She also sponsored legislation ending discrimination in insurance against victims of domestic violence and advocated for Holocaust victims who were denied insurance benefits.
During his tenure as insurance commissioner, Senn implemented regulations intended to expedite the processing of environmental cleanup claims by insurance companies.
Senn was the first woman to be elected Washington’s insurance commissioner, defeating incumbent Richard Marquardt in 1992. She was re-elected in 1996.
“She wanted to help people access affordable and comprehensive health coverage. That’s why she ran for the first time,” said Bertschi.
His subsequent bids for elected office were unsuccessful, losing to Maria Cantwell in the 2000 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and to Rob McKenna in the 2004 general election for Washington Attorney General.
She portrayed this relentless campaign for the post of Attorney General in a solo theatrical production called “Until the Last Dog Dies” in 2009.
Senn’s tough style drew criticism, even from within his own party. But consumer advocate and political candidate Ralph Nader called her “the best insurance commissioner in the United States, hands down,” in a Seattle Weekly profile during his campaign for the Senate.
Greg Scully, who worked on Senn’s campaign for insurance commissioner in 1992 and became his deputy chief insurance commissioner, said Senn turned the office into a proactive watchdog and worked in based on the belief that governments can do good for ordinary people.
On the day of his swearing in, the state was hit by a severe windstorm that knocked out electricity and caused damage. Senn took 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 unprecedented move for the government office in the United States. era, Scully said.
“We didn’t just sit there waiting for them to call us,” he said.
Scully described Senn as a smart, tough and fair commissioner who also had a terrific sense of humor and cared deeply about her staff.
For someone’s birthdays, promotions, or retirements, Senn would read a “Late Show with David Letterman”-style “Top 10” list 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 his desk, Scully said.
After leaving office, she advised emerging democracies on insurance regulation as a consultant for the US Treasury Department, 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 practiced several sports, including hiking, cycling, and skiing, and was an avid baseball, football, and tennis player. Senn was also active in the Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith and its Ilocal Jewish community. Senn and her husband also bred and bred Vizsla dogs.
She died at the Swedish Medical Center from complications related to pancreatic cancer, Bertschi said. Senn is survived by her husband, Bertschi, one brother and one sister.