In her short tenure as an elected official, California Assembly member Buffy Wicks hasn't been shy about sharing her most intimate health care struggles with the public.
In her very first speech in the Assembly, Wicks, a Democrat who has represented Oakland since late 2018, told the story of her abortion at age 26. She has also spoken publicly about her decision to freeze her eggs.
In 2020, during the harrowing first year of the covid-19 pandemic, Wicks made national headlines when she voted in the Assembly chamber with her infant daughter, Elly, in her arms — after her request to vote by proxy was denied by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. And in September, she had an emergency abortion after finding out that she was pregnant and miscarrying, an ordeal she tweeted about last month.
"All of these things, I think, shaped who I am as a lawmaker, which makes me want to work on women’s issues," said Wicks, 44, who previously worked in public outreach in the Obama White House and for liberal political organizations such as Priorities USA Action, one of the largest Democratic super PACs.
Wicks, a rising voice on health care policy in California, said she grew up taking for granted the right to an abortion, something she thought was settled and protected by the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. But, now, the conservative-leaning high court is considering strict abortion bans in Texas and Mississippi and weighing whether Roe v. Wade should stand.
Wicks said she intends to work closely with Planned Parenthood this year on legislation to ensure everyone has access to abortion in California — including women from out of state. Planned Parenthood has given at least $14,000 to her campaigns and special causes since she began running for office in 2017, according to a KHN analysis of campaign contributions. Wicks' campaign made a $1,500 contribution to Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in 2021.
She said she also plans to tackle homelessness among women and children and to push for stronger covid vaccine requirements. Wicks said she's ready to continue the work of state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who has played a crucial role in the toughening of childhood vaccine requirements.
Pan will leave office after this year because of term limits, and Wicks — who tried and failed over the summer to pass a bill requiring covid vaccination for employees and customers of certain businesses — said she wants to debate the issue again this year.
Wicks recently met with KHN's Rachel Bluth via Zoom to talk about bringing her personal health experiences into her policymaking — and what to expect in health care policy this year. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you tweet the story of your emergency abortion from September?
I was just infuriated when I was listening to the Supreme Court discussion around Roe v. Wade. We felt like this decision has been made. As a nation, we believe that women should have access to abortion care and this is just our reality. The fact that it is being so severely undermined is just infuriating to me.
These stories need to be told because people are making big policy decisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives. My ability to share my story paints a real picture of what is happening in people’s lives and that this care is so important for people to receive.
Q: As other states restrict abortion rights, what should California do?
We are going to say women have the right to this care. They deserve this care. It’s part of their human right to be able to access this care, and we’re going to do everything we can to support it in a wide variety of ways: ensuring that we have the appropriate workforce to deliver the care; ensuring that things like cost for travel and child care and lost wages, and other things like that, are addressed; ensuring that our young people are educated in terms of sexual education.
Q: What proposals do you plan to spearhead?
We may have 1.4 million women from out of state showing up on our doorstep seeking care. And if we do, how are we going to handle that? Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the providers? I’m very excited that we’re even engaging in this conversation.
Q: In addition to reproductive health, what do you think are the biggest health issues in California right now?
Vaccines. We're monitoring the vaccination rate and seeing how omicron is going and what that is going to mean for us. If you look at hospital rates, it's still unvaccinated folks who are ending up in the hospital and unvaccinated folks, unfortunately, passing away from this.
We’re looking at a couple different policy proposals, an employer vaccine mandate as well as a bill to require vaccination coverage for entry to bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, sports arenas, etc.
Q: Do you support adding covid vaccines to the list of required inoculations for public school kids?
Q: At this stage in the pandemic, what role do you see for the legislature?
The governor can issue an executive action saying students need to be vaccinated, but under his authority, the personal belief exemption still exists. He doesn’t have the ability to close the personal belief exemption loophole. I think we should consider giving the governor that authority. We have the ability to do that in the legislature, but the legislature doesn’t move so quickly. We move at more of a glacial pace.
Q: The legislature seems poised for a fight over whether to create a single-payer health insurance system. Do you think it will pass?
It is ambitious, but you don't make change unless you put stuff out there. It's important to set a vision for what we can do, and a large part of that bill is aiming to set a vision for what is in the realm of the possible. Health care policy is complicated. You have a lot of different stakeholders in that equation, you're working with the federal government. It's not like California can design everything on its own. We have to be very thoughtful with how we move forward on that type of model, but I certainly think it's where we need to be going.
Q: You were recently named chair of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee. How do housing and health intersect?
If you look at Oakland, we had a 47% increase in homelessness in the two years right before the pandemic, and I'm sure it's even worse now. What you see when folks are experiencing homelessness is an increase in mental health issues. It’s severely destabilizing for people that then costs us more for emergency room care. There's a direct correlation between folks losing their home and an increase in the need for this type of very expensive care. What we need to do is ensure that we have more long-term, permanent supportive housing.
We have a YIMBY versus NIMBY issue in the state. We have a local control versus state mandate issue in the state. If we can just break some of that logjam on producing more housing, we will then ensure that those folks have better health care.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.