Since being elected to represent California’s enormous 2nd Assembly District in 2014, Healdsburg-based Democrat Jim Wood, a dentist by trade, has focused much of his legislative efforts on improving health care.
Currently serving as Chair of the Assembly Health Committee, Wood has introduced more than a dozen health care bills this legislative season, including Assembly Bill 204, which would require more transparency from nonprofit hospitals; Assembly Bill 890, which would allow nationally certified nurse practitioners to practice without direct physician oversight; and Assembly Bill 174, which would expand subsidies and tax credits for people who get insurance coverage through Covered California.
A couple years ago he drew the ire of some progressive constituents for his decision not to support The Healthy California Act, SB-562, a measure designed to establish a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system in California. Wood supports universal health care but argued that the bill was flawed.
Wood was at his district office Tuesday morning and invited the Outpost to sit down for an update on what he says has been a busy year in the state Assembly. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.
# # #
Lost Coast Outpost: We recently expanded. We have a sister publication [Wild Rivers Outpost] now that’s based in Crescent City, and our new colleague, our Crescent City reporter, Jessica Cejnar, specifically wanted to know about the status of AB-204. It’s a big deal up there because of Sutter Coast Hospital. So what’s going on with that?
Wood: Well, actually, the inspiration for that bill came from folks in Crescent City. It was the supervisors and [Del Norte County Healthcare District Chairman] Dr. [Greg] Duncan, last year sometime. We talked about the ongoing struggles they have with Sutter [Coast Hospital]. Part of the conversation came around to, you know, we hear we’re getting all these benefits from Sutter, but when we ask them for specifics we can’t get any information.
Outpost: Right. That’s their frustration.
Wood: That shouldn’t be the case. Every hospital in every city ought to be able to tell you what they provide as a benefit to the community. That’s the impetus for the bill. It’s actually in the Senate now. It has made it to the Senate Appropriations [Committee], and we’ll wait for mid-August [and] then hopefully we can get a release of that [to the full Senate]. But I feel really good about that bill.
Outpost: Do you have any indication how the Senate is leaning on that?
Wood: In the policy committees we’ve been great. There’s not a huge fiscal impact. It’s an important bill to me because it’s so important to our constituents. And I think it’s a really good bill for everybody in their community.
Outpost: And it would affect St. Joseph Hospital too, right?
Wood: It would, yeah. Any nonprofit hospital is going to be affected. They have the information, right? It’s just easier to report it as an aggregate. And so we’re just saying, “No, break it out. You tell people that you’re doing this. Help them to understand that.”
Outpost: Have you gotten any resistance from people at Sutter or St. Joe’s?
Wood: Not from individual hospitals. We have concerns from the [California] Hospital Association. There are always concerns when we’re asking for information. And I think the concern is, “Well, what are you going to do with the information once you get it?” Well, we don’t have any information, so I think they’re putting the cart before the horse. The bill is pretty simple. Folks in Crescent City want to know: “You tell us you’re doing things for us; then tell us what it is? And what’s the value to our community?” That’s really what they want.
Outpost: Okay. Another one I wanted to ask you about is AB-890 [the nurse practitioners’ unsupervised practice bill]. I know you were disappointed with that stalling out. [The Assembly Appropriations Committee decided in May to delay a vote on the bill until next year.]
Wood: It’s not over.
Outpost: What’s your next step?
Wood: The bill made it through our policy committees in the Assembly. The chair of Appropriations [Assemblymember Lorena Gonzales] has concerns about the bill.
Outpost: Do you know what those are, specifically?
Wood: Well, I thought I did. I thought we’d addressed those. But there are additional concerns, and so we will be meeting beginning in the latter part of August with [Gonzales] to address specifically the concerns that she has. And then my hope is that in January it will be released from Appropriations and we’ll go forward from there. …
But trust me, if I have a bill that’s not going anywhere, I’ll tell you. Because I’m pretty serious about this. And I think this particular bill is a really, really important one for rural California.
Outpost: Right. That’s why I bring it up. Health care access is a big deal to people around here. If this bill doesn’t go through and get passed, do you have any other plans for improving rural health care access?
Wood: That’s been one of my primary focuses since I was elected to the Legislature. This bill wasn’t something that I just pulled out of my hat. I spent a year and a half working on a workforce commission that was put together by the California Healthcare Foundation back in 2017. So it was about a year and a half of work, meetings, looking at this, and this was one of the top recommendations to come out of there. And I said, “You know what? It’s been tried before, and I know why it failed.”
Outpost: Why did it fail before?
Wood: It’s actually the same reason we’re struggling now: It’s the pushback from the California Medical Association. They don’t like it. They’ll probably never like it.
Outpost: On what grounds?
Wood: The grounds that you’re creating to two tiers of care. [They argue,] “These folks are not as well trained.” You know, these are all familiar concerns, and we believe we’ve addressed the concerns. If the bill, even in its current form, were passed and signed by the governor, [nurse practitioner oversight] would be the strictest of any state in the country. But it is one of those real philosophical differences that the Medical Association has with people like me, so they will continue to fight it.
Outpost: Can you talk about what you think are the top priorities for health care in California and your stance on universal health care?
Wood: Well, I have been an advocate for universal health care. I continue to be an advocate for universal health care. I didn’t support a particular bill [SB-562], and that’s a big difference. And how do you define universal health care? Universal health care, to me, in one way, means that everybody’s covered. And so we’ve been working hard to get everybody covered in California, and we are closer now than we have ever been. And we are closer than any other state in the country. But the bill as it was presented had major, major pieces of the puzzle missing. That’s why it was held. [The bill died in the Assembly in November 2018.] People don’t talk about the outcomes of that, and I think they’re important things to consider.
Outpost: Such as?
Wood: After the after the bill was held, we held a series of hearings. We had a select committee that had a series of hearings, about 35 hours of public hearings that went on for several months. And from that, about 10 bills came out in February of last year. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t make it because it’s really expensive. But some key bills did. And they made it in various forms, and I’m pretty proud of the ones that did.
“I think what frustrates people is that I’m very data-oriented and I’m very methodical. And I’m not hyper-emotional about things.”
I think what frustrates people is I’m very data-oriented and I’m very methodical. And I’m not hyper-emotional about things because I really want to make sure that we build a strong case that is not based so much on emotion but that’s based on fact. But there was some foundational things that happened that I think were really, really important.
People misunderstand. When I asked questions or raised concerns, it wasn’t that I had issues with where we were going. It’s that I had concerns about the unintended consequences of the pieces of the puzzle that were missing. And so that was often interpreted as opposition. And that really wasn’t fair. I got to a point [where] I just stopped responding, because everything I said was pretty much misinterpreted.
There are a couple of foundational pieces that I think are critical. And they were bills that I ran. No. 1 was that we in California had been looking to try to establish what we call an “All Payer Claims Database.” It’s a database that tracks every expenditure through any kind of insurance or public health program. And it’s searchable.
So why is that significant? We, as a state, really don’t know where all the money’s being spent. And if we don’t know where all the money’s being spent, we don’t know the outcomes. We don’t know where we should be improving. So that database is foundational to our ability to build a government-funded health care system in California.
I had the bill running, and [former] Governor [Jerry] Brown took the language from my bill and put it into the 2018 budget and funded it to the tune of $60 million. And that is now going forward. They’re working on the database, and that’s foundational. You know, you don’t build a house on quicksand. You want to make sure you have a good foundation.
The second one — another bill that I authored — was asking for a commission to actually study, in depth, the challenges we face going forward. It was easy to gloss over the fact that you have a federal government that doesn’t really want to cooperate with us. But you have some constitutional challenges. It was all kind of easy to gloss over because it wasn’t part of the narrative that people wanted. … So Governor Brown, he actually put that bill in the budget as well, and funded that.
Then, fast forward to today. Governor [Gavin] Newsom retooled that. There were only five people on the commission; he expanded the number to 13. It will look at single-payer, but it’ll look at other ways of getting there. And [Newsom] put me and my counterpart in the Senate [Dr. Richard Pan, chair of the Senate Health Committee] on this commission, because we have the background and the experience from the last couple of years.
I think those are those are important things. You need to have basic foundational information, and you need to understand what your challenges are before you can build a system. And that’s what I was advocating for. And that’s what was misunderstood.
Outpost: What do you do about that, the frustration in not being able to get across the complexities of an issue?
“I realized that the way I was trying to convey it didn’t matter. When it’s an emotional issue for people, facts don’t matter.”
Wood: I just realized that the way I was trying to convey it to people didn’t matter. When it’s an emotional issue for people, facts don’t matter. I understand. It’s an emotional issue for a lot of people. The cost of health care is outrageous. It’s through the roof. And, you know, people have said, “Well, you’re just chipping around the edges, and you do these bills, and they don’t really mean anything.” And I say, you know, everything I’ve done in the health care space is either about improving access, improving efficiency or reducing costs for consumers.
And I said, “Do you understand, fundamentally, the forces that are lined up to prevent you from getting anywhere?” I’m trying to increase access to care, and the biggest obstacle for me is the California Medical Association. I’m trying to reduce the cost of drugs, and pharmacy benefit managers and pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors and wholesalers don’t like that, because you’re going to affect their bottom line.
I believe that dialysis companies have created a scheme to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody who’s paying for insurance out there. And every one of these bills meet huge resistance. And I don’t think people really understand how difficult that is to get something passed. And yeah, I wish they could be bigger and broader. And the more experienced I get, the bigger and broader they get — and the bigger and broader the challenges become, too.
Outpost: Another health care bill that I was looking at, that you introduced, was AB-174. That seems like something that would affect Humboldt and Del Norte counties pretty extensively because of our high poverty rates. Can you talk about the status of that? What’s going on?
Wood: Yeah, that was a parallel effort with what the governor was looking at, and he actually put that into his budget. So really, the nuts and bolts of that bill were signed into the [2019-20] budget.
I ran this bill in the Assembly. The Senate health chair ran a similar bill. There was a lot of public input. I think the administration learned a lot from that. And I think it affected the final product. But at the end of the day I don’t need a notch in my belt. I want to see the policy get done. So I’m thrilled to see that the governor thinks that the ideas that we’re working on are worthy of moving forward. Great, take them. Let’s go and let’s move on so we can do something else.
Outpost: Aside from that, what do you think of the job that Governor Newsom has done so far?
Wood: I have tremendous respect and appreciation for what the governor is trying to do. He is energetic, he’s bold, he is not afraid to take on difficult issues. And I think one of the big differences between him and Governor Brown is that he is much more public-facing than Governor Brown was.
And Governor Brown was tremendously effective in a very, very different way. But these are two different people. It’s been great to be able to work with the governor. He is very interested in health care, whether it’s behavioral health, substance abuse disorders, access to care — he’s very engaged in these [issues]. I was successful with Governor Brown, but it was a different kind of relationship. I think [Newsom’s] got a good team and I look forward to continuing to work with him.
Outpost: What do you think of the earlier primaries in California next year?
Wood: It makes for a long season after that. Eight months from the primary to the general is a long time. I hope for California that it gives us more influence on what happens nationally. Obviously, that’s the reason for doing that [moving the date up from June]. It does really compress the calendar because, you know, I’m seven months into this term, and in December I have to have my paperwork filed.
Outpost: Has anybody stepped up to challenge you yet?
Wood: Nobody’s officially filed anything. You always hear rumblings of somebody might have an interest, but I haven’t heard anything more than that.
Outpost: What do you think of the Democratic field in the presidential race?
Wood: It’ll be smaller after by next month, or by September. But, you know, I think when you see a field that big it’s a strong indication of huge dissatisfaction with the status quo. The longer it is a huge field like that, though, the more challenging it is for Democrats. I hope that in the next two, three months that we see a crystallization around a small group of candidates who can actually move forward.
Outpost: Who do you like?
Wood: Um … I’m watching. I haven’t endorsed anybody. And I’m watching. You know, I think there are some great candidates. But who’s going to emerge as that — to use a baseball analogy — that five-tool player? I don’t know at this point.
Outpost: I’m switching gears dramatically here, but we’ve had a lot of controversy in Eureka, specifically, about the syringe exchange programs. Do you have an opinion about that, from a health care standpoint?
Wood: There continues to be a problem everywhere around used syringes being left in the wrong places. I know that just saying “no” and “You just need to stop” doesn’t work. I know that’s frustrating to people. I think that needle-exchange programs are part of a process that hopefully can help people to break the addiction. And I know it’s challenging.
But this county and others in rural areas have significant challenges with not just heroin but methamphetamines and a variety of other things. And approaching them the way we’ve always approached them — that is, focused strongly on the law enforcement component, get them off the streets [and] lock them up — doesn’t solve the problem. And so I’m a big advocate of medically assisted treatment, programs that use things like Suboxone. And they take time.
Outpost: Another topic I was hoping you would address is the continuing challenges of sea-level rise and climate change. What are you working on in that regard?
Wood: I’m not carrying specific bills that are related to sea-level rise. I am very interested in the environment. I sit on our Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. I was fortunate enough to be asked to attend the climate summit last fall in San Francisco that Governor Brown put on and met with leaders from Europe, talking about their challenges and how we work together. I think that it is a broader conversation, that we need to continue to learn from other people. For example, the Netherlands has had huge challenges with sea-level rise, and people may not be aware of this, but we’ve been working closely with their government.
Outpost: California has?
Wood: It has. And so I think this head-in-the-sand approach, where you just say, “Oh, we can’t fix it” or “We’re going to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord” is the wrong way to go. The ability to bring people together who have different ideas and different experiences will help us help us do that.
Water continues to be a critical issue for us. We had a bill — the idea for the bill came from [Rep.] Jared Huffman a few years ago, back in 2014, when we were in the peak of our drought. He, Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird and the Army Corps of Engineers were in Mendocino County at the Coyote Dam in February when they were releasing massive amounts of water, and we’re all looking at each other, like, “What are you doing?” And they said, “Well, our data says that we have to release water. This is the calendar day, this is the water level, and therefore we release.” And with no regard for what the climate really might or might not bring.
That turned out to be a catastrophic decision in many ways, because it didn’t rain much after that. And so there has been research going on at the Scripps Institute in California around the concept of atmospheric rivers. And started to hear that [term] more in the press this year as we had a really high amount of rain.
Funding for that research had been diminishing, and we ran a bill to increase it. The governor put it in the budget to the tune of $9 million to help continue the research on atmospheric rivers. So what started as an idea in Mendocino County ended up being supported by water districts throughout California, because if you can predict the water coming in then you can better manage how you use that water … so that you don’t waste it.
Outpost: Speaking of water projects, have you been involved at all with the Potter Valley Project? I know Huffman’s working on the two basin solution.
Wood: Right. We’ve been a part of the meetings and will continue to be a part of those. I think that so much of that was focused around PG&E, obviously, and there’s still big concerns. There’s the federal licensing process. PG&E has to deal with that at some point. It’s a $30 million project. It is a really complicated and thorny issue.
I’m happy to work with — and will continue working with — Congressman Huffman on this because of his expertise. At the end of the day it’s going to be one of those solutions that not everybody’s going to be happy about. And hopefully everybody’s equally unhappy and that means we’ve gotten the right solution.
Outpost: What else do you have going on this this legislative session?
Wood: We continue working on a variety of bills related to health care and moving my health care agenda forward.
Everything I do legislatively is based on what I believe are needs in the district that I represent. And if it’s good generally, if it’s good for the district, it’s good for California. And in an era and a time when politics is hyper paralyzed and hyper partisan, I continue to try to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle — although there are fewer of them these days — to get things done.
A lot of the folks on the other side of the aisle live and represent rural districts like this. My district is unique among Democratic districts. It’s the largest district of any Democrat in the Assembly, and it is the most rural.
There are times when I cannot convince my colleagues in Los Angeles or the Bay Area that this is a good idea. If I need a few votes I work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle — in particular, Brian Dahle, who’s now [First District] Senator Dahle, and working closely with my colleague Chad Mayes, who’s from Yucca Valley. We’ve worked together on the issues around utilities and health care. This is an amazing statement, and highlighting it gives us an additional graphic element.
“I went to the Legislature to get things done. I don’t have grand aspirations beyond the job I’m doing.”
I went to the Legislature to get things done. I don’t have grand aspirations beyond the job I’m doing. I want to do the job that I’m doing and make a difference in the communities I represent. And so I think sometimes it’s easy just to throw stones at each other and cast blame, but I’m actively out there trying to build relationships with everybody. At the end of the day, there are people that have supported things I’ve done that I never would have expected, but it’s because we spent the time to get to know one another. And I’ve supported things on the other side that that they wouldn’t have expected. But that’s the way it used to work.
Outpost: Is the rural/urban divide more significant than the partisan divide in the Legislature?
Wood: They’re both significant, but they’re different. And I don’t believe that the urban/rural divide people want to punish rural communities. I think it’s fundamentally a lack of understanding about what it’s like. So, you know, the more I can get my colleagues to come visit my district, the better. They say, “Well, it’s only 200 miles from your house to Eureka. What’s it take you [to get there], like, two and a half hours? Three hours?” I said, “No! It takes a lot longer.”
Outpost: Yeah, until you drive it — .
Wood: Until you drive it you just don’t have any concept of it. You know, everything we do is relationship-based. And so the more you invest in getting to know and work with your colleagues, the more successful you are in the long run. And that means people in the administration, getting to know the governor and the governor’s staff better, the secretaries. I had a really good relationship with the [previous] Secretary for Natural Resources [John Laird]. I am building a great relationship with the Secretary for Health and Human Services [Dr. Mark Ghaly]. So they understand where we’re coming from as a Legislature, and I understand where they’re coming from as an Administration. And we don’t always agree. I mean, at the end of the day if everybody agreed with everything I had to say if I’d be like, “There’s something wrong with you people.” [Laughs.] Because sometimes my 3 a.m. thoughts, they sound good at 4 a.m. but when you put them on paper, they go, “What were you thinking?”
Outpost: Anything else you want to let people know about?
Wood: You know, first of all, I work hard. I love what I do, and I work hard. On Monday morning, I’m one of the first people in the Capitol. Thursday, I leave much later than most of my colleagues. So I put in four really long days at the Capitol when I’m there.
The challenge for me has always been getting to different places in the district during those other three days of the week. And, you know, I’m human. I have things like to do like buy groceries and do laundry … horrible things, you know, like pay bills, actually spend time with my dogs and my partner, all those real life things are really kind of important.
And so I know that people often say, “Well, we don’t see you as much.” And it’s like, you know, I really do try. And as we get into the fall and through December I’ll have a lot more time to be out in communities. I love being up here. We’ll spend the day today. I’ll be back on Friday and part of Saturday next week.
Outpost: You’ve got a Clean Up event, right?
Wood: Yeah. This is our second year doing this, and they’re great. I love doing that. It’s a way to give back, and it’s a great opportunity to connect with people and hear their concerns as well.
# # #
Assemblymember Wood will join the Northcoast Regional Land Trust for a cleanup event at the Freshwater Farms Reserve, 5851 Myrtle Ave. in Eureka, on Saturday, Aug. 10 from 9 a.m. to 12 noon.