Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) has represented California’s 11th Senate district since 2016. He currently chairs the Senate Housing Committee and sits on the Senate Health and Public Safety Committees, as well as the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health.
In this Q&A, Wiener discusses his health policy priorities as the legislative session forges on. With numerous pieces of legislation sponsored, including bills on health plan accountability and safe drug consumption zones, Wiener told State of Reform about his positive outlook on the future of these bills and why he believes these issues need to be addressed in the state.
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State of Reform: What are your health policy priorities as the legislative session continues?
Sen. Wiener: “One is access to mental health and addiction treatment. That’s always the priority for me. We have legislation this year to help expand the mental health workforce which is an impediment to people accessing care.
[Another priority of mine is] legislation to authorize safe consumption sites so that people can use drugs safely and transition into treatment, [as well as] legislation to decriminalize psychedelics, which are a very promising treatment for mental health conditions.
Another priority is to ensure that people can actually use their health insurance, and create better accountability for health plans to actually cover people’s needs. And then of course, vaccination is a high priority for me. So I’m sponsoring a bill to lower the vaccine age of consent from 18 to 12, and we’re working on other COVID vaccination bills as well.”
SOR: You have legislation this session around health plans covering prescription drugs and health plan accountability. Why are these issues important to address this year in California? How far do you see these bills going in the legislative process?
Wiener: “We’ve seen with COVID how incredibly important it is for people to be able to get the care that they need. People have health insurance and they rely on it, and they need to be able to get [covered care when they need it without delays from their health plans] … Overwhelmingly, health plans cover appropriate care, but sometimes there are problems, and we need to create good incentives for health plans to cover people’s care. If there is some sort of dispute, we want people to be able to get their medicine [immediately] and not have to wait.
I think we have good support for these bills. These types of bills are always hard, but I think we have a path to get them passed.”
SOR: You also have legislation regarding gender health and the behavioral health workforce. Why are these issues also important to address right now? Do you anticipate getting a lot of support for these bills?
Wiener: “In order to have the best possible mental health treatment for people, we need more practitioners, social workers, psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, etc. We have a shortage that is going to get worse over time. The pay isn’t good enough, we don’t have enough educational slots, and there’s some licensing issues . So we have our mental health workforce omnibus bill to try to create an atmosphere where more people enter the mental health care workforce.
Our trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex residents often have real struggles accessing health care in terms of finding physicians that provide appropriate care. They also sometimes have providers who just don’t know that much about how to appropriately treat and interact with [transgender, gender non-conforming/nonbinary, intersex (TGI) patients].
So, the bill will require training for providers, and also will require health plans to indicate in their directories which providers provide gender affirming care. It’s just something that we all take for granted, being treated with respect and understanding and being able to find providers appropriate for us. For TGI people it’s even harder, and we want to make it easier.
For the mental health workforce bill, we’re getting enormous support for it. Everyone agrees it’s a problem. It’s a complicated bill, but we have good support for it. For the TGI health care access bill, I think we’ll also get good support for that bill.”
SOR: What bills have you noticed being the most contentious in the health committee this session so far?
Wiener: “My legislation to authorize safe consumption sites and to decriminalize psychedelics have been contentious bills, but they are righteous bills and we were able to get them pretty deep into the legislative process. So we have a chance of passing both of them. [There’s also] the single-payer bill that died, and some other cost containment bills that are contentious.”
SOR: Are there any other health issues or specific bills that you plan on advocating for or supporting this year?
Wiener: “There will be legislation this year to expand access to abortion and reproductive health care, I’ll be very supportive of that. There will also be legislation around vaccination that I’ll be supportive of.”