When Washington voters pare down the field of insurance commissioner candidates in the Aug. 4 primary, they will have three very different options from which to choose.
An incumbent seeking a sixth term in the statewide position or two insurance agents who are making their first runs for political office.
Democrat Mike Kreidler, who has held the post since 2001, faces Libertarian Anthony Welti, who is so serious about the race he quit his job to become a full-time candidate, and Republican Chirayu Patel, a University of Washington biochemistry student who describes himself as an "autistic savant" who can channel the thoughts of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson.
Welti, who campaigns against crony capitalism and the influence of lobbyists, said his run stems from personal experience with an insurance problem. Five years ago, his wife and infant son lost their medical insurance when the company that had their policy left the state. They looked unsuccessfully for coverage they could afford, and wound up paying the federal fines required by the Affordable Care Act until those provisions were overturned.
He wants to open up the insurance market to allow Washington residents to have more options, like the ability to buy cheaper insurance plans available in other states and health sharing membership plans in which people pool their money to support those in the plan.
Kreidler has opposed suggestions by some Republicans to open up the state's insurance laws to allow residents to buy plans from other states.
"It's unworkable," he said. A Washington resident with an out-of-state policy who goes to a hospital is likely to be told that company "is not on our list." Companies in other states typically don't have contracts with doctors, clinics or other providers in Washington, and Washington consumers won't get much help for a complaint about an out-of-state company in that other state, he added.
Welti said that while buying plans from all 50 states might be a problem, the state should consider allowing cross-state insurance purchases among Northwest states because people move frequently among Washington, Oregon and Idaho for jobs.
Kreidler has been critical of sharing plans, issuing cease-and-desist orders against two that described themselves as health care sharing ministries for failing to follow state and federal regulations that require regular audits, limited membership and require being in existence since before 2000.
Some people have had problems getting medical costs covered when they apply for reimbursement with the association.
People need to read their policies more closely to understand what's being covered and what isn't, Welti said. "I think we need to start educating high school and college students about insurance," he added.
Kreidler has been a vocal supporter of the Affordable Care Act, which he said has brought the state's uninsured rate down to about 5% from about 14% before the law passed. That would go back up if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with some Republicans that the law is unconstitutional without the requirement of fees for people who don't have insurance, he added
"They're trying to take it down in the middle of a pandemic," he said. "If that happens, we're in deep trouble. No state has been able to take over funding" for expanded Medicaid that covers some low income people under the ACA.
While Kreidler and Welti have some strong disagreements about different technical aspects of the insurance market, Patel is emphasizing different themes in his campaign. If elected, he said, he'd like to occupy the office for about 60% of the time, and invite Kreidler and Welti each to run it for 20% of the time.
"I don't see them as my opponents. I see them as my allies," he said, although he hasn't discussed the shared work arrangement with them.
Patel describes himself as being "on the autism scale" but high functioning, which he said allows him to use a part of his brain that most people don't. With it, he said he can put himself in the mind of Reagan and Jefferson, to whom he believes he is biologically related through Genghis Khan.
He describes the Affordable Care Act as a Hamiltonian federalist action and wants to start a Jeffersonian counterbalance to stabilize it. He said he's willing to work with the federal government regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is in the White House.
The race, like the office itself, isn't high profile. It will be far down on a primary ballot that features lists of would-be governors, lieutenant governors -- and in some districts, congressional candidates -- in double digits.
It's rarely a race with high campaign spending.
So far this year, Welti, with more than $74,000 in contributions, has raised more than Kreidler, who lists about $30,000 between new contributions and money left over from his last campaign. Welti also has spent more, about $68,000 compared to $8,000 for Kreidler.
Patel hasn't raised any money yet.
Because of the restrictions for the COVID-19 pandemic, campaigning is different than any of his previous runs for the seat, or for any other elected office he's held, Kreidler said. All of the meetings and fund-raising events take place over the internet rather than face-to-face.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said.
Welti has been traveling the state with a long stop in Spokane over July 4 and is scheduled to attend a town hall in the Trailbreaker Cider restaurant in Liberty Lake with Libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgenson at 6 p.m. Friday.
If he makes it through the top two primary, he'd be the first third-party candidate to advance to the general election in a statewide primary that had both a Democratic and Republican candidate.
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