CDA member begins tenure as Assembly member

Jim Wood, DDS, a general dentist in Cloverdale since 1987, is settling into office after winning the 2nd Assembly District seat in last November’s election.

Wood now serves as the only dentist in the California Legislature and in addition to representing the residents in his district, which covers all or part of Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity and Sonoma counties, he plans to advocate for the profession.

Wood has a long history in organized dentistry. After first becoming involved with the Redwood Empire Dental Society (where he served as president in 2000-01), he was appointed to the CDA Council on Legislation (now the Government Affairs Council) and served as a CDA trustee and chair of CalDPAC.

CDA Update staff recently spoke to Wood about how his new role in the Legislature is going and what he plans to focus on moving forward.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

What are your first impressions of working in the Legislature?

My first couple of weeks in the Legislature have been a whirlwind, but we are settling in nicely. I am not sure I can imagine a more dramatic transition in environment than going from my family dental practice in rural Cloverdale, to the hubbub of the Capitol. Already, I feel like I have learned more than I thought possible, and there is still so much to cover. I would not have been able to get this far without great help along the way. My friends at CDA, around the Capitol and now my great staff, have been tremendously helpful and supportive. I sense a strong desire among my freshman colleagues to work together, regardless of party affiliation. Overall, my first impression is a positive one, very different from Cloverdale, but I am really excited about what the future holds.

What issues are you planning to focus on this year?

This year, I am looking forward to working on a variety of issues that will primarily focus on the needs of my district. The 2nd Assembly District is enormous and diverse, stretching from Sonoma County to the Oregon border. Sonoma County has the sixth-lowest unemployment rate in California while Trinity and Del Norte counties are still experiencing unemployment rates near 10 percent. Serving these rural areas and crafting legislation that helps to ease the challenges that come with living in small towns, including access to quality health care, are at the top of my priority list.

Can you tell us about your committee assignments?

I am very pleased with my committee assignments for this session. I sit on the Committee on Natural Resources; Committee on Appropriations; Committee on Health; Committee on Business and Professions; and Committee on Rules. The Natural Resources Committee is important for my district. My predecessor chaired the committee and for most of my constituents protecting the natural beauty of their communities and managing resources such as timber and fisheries is a way of life. The Business and Professions Committee is a perfect fit for my background. My time serving with CDA taught me that almost everything we care about as dentists goes through Business and Professions at some point. As one of the few health care providers in the Legislature, it seems fitting that I would serve on the Assembly’s Health Committee. Having a seat at the table will give me another opportunity to ensure we pass good, sound policy that serves the needs of our patients. The Appropriations Committee is where all legislation that would have a significant financial impact on the state must go.  While many of the decisions about funding priorities are determined at a leadership level, having a seat on the Appropriations Committee gives me an opportunity to review all significant legislation, and provides a “heads-up” about some of the politically charged issues I will face again when they reach the floor for a vote. Finally, my position on the Assembly Rules Committee allows me to play a significant role in the operations of the Assembly as a body. I am very pleased that as a freshman legislator, I was appointed to committees that give me some opportunities to influence policy.

The state recently released a scathing audit of the Denti-Cal program and its inability to provide timely access to dental care. What action would you like to see the Legislature take on the issue this year? 

The Denti-Cal program has been problematic for years. Currently, it does not seem like it is working for anyone. The program is grossly underfunded, and the state continues to add to the list of eligible recipients, further exacerbating problems. If I had a ready-made solution to solving funding issues around health care, I would be one popular guy. However, given the overwhelming evidence highlighting the struggles of the Denti-Cal program, I think it is time the state stepped up and made some changes. I think a gradual increase of provider reimbursements over several years would serve to begin easing the funding issues and send a strong message that the state is committed to the program. 

What impact do you think a state dental director can have on oral health in California?

I think having a state dental director for California will be a valuable addition to health care policy in the state; and one that I know will increase the visibility and significance of oral health care in policy discussions and budget decisions. Every year, children miss more days of school due to oral health issues than any other disease. Having someone reinforce this reality and work to establish a comprehensive plan for changing the oral health status of Californians, particularly children and other vulnerable populations, is a development I know the Legislature will welcome and support. Having an expert lead the collaborative process needed to create change and have a meaningful impact on the overall oral health of all Californians is long overdue. I cannot wait to welcome the person who will assume this challenging and exciting new role.

For more information on Wood, visit asmdc.org/members/a02/.