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Assemblyman Jim Wood, California dental lobby opposed changes after boy’s surgery death

Jim Wood was first elected to the state Assembly three years ago as a former mayor of Healdsburg and a small town dentist.

Holding a safe seat in a strongly Democratic district stretching from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, Wood, 57, has transformed into a political campaign rainmaker, raising nearly $1 million in his successful re-election effort last year.

In Sacramento, he serves as chairman of the Assembly's Health Committee, overseeing the state's giant $367 billion health care industry.

Wood's presence as the only dentist in the 120-member state Legislature coincides with the rising influence of the so-called “dental lobby,” which has ascended to the ranks of big spenders on state political campaigns, donating four times more money to candidates than it did two decades ago.

Politics, dentistry, money and an East Bay family's tragedy intersected this year when a bill aimed at changing the standards for dentists administrating anesthesia to children ran into opposition from the dental lobby and was shelved by its author.

Six-year-old Caleb Sears died under anesthesia in an Albany dentist's chair in 2015 when the dentist, who was pulling one of the boy's teeth, acted as both surgeon and anesthesiology monitor.

Tim Sears, the boy's father, said he “absolutely” blames the dental establishment for thwarting a bill that would have required two highly trained medical professionals to attend the children under 7 who undergo anesthesia in a dental office.

“In the end there was too much political pressure exerted,” Sears said in an interview.

Dentists fought the measure “because they have a vested economic interest in keeping the status quo,” he said.

All other fields of medicine have determined that two medical providers should be involved in placing patients under anesthesia, he said.

The Sears family's loss and the ensuing political controversy have generated considerable media attention, including a segment on Megyn Kelly's NBC Sunday night report this month.

Wood was one of 23 Assembly members who did not cast a vote on the bill when it was approved on a 41-16 vote May 31.

The author, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, pulled the bill over dissatisfaction with multiple amendments while it was before a Senate committee.

The 27,000-member California Dental Association opposed the legislation. It has a political fundraising committee that has spent up to $4 million on state candidates in recent elections.

“Business interests and political forces rallied against my bill,” Thurmond said in a press release, noting that he had carried the measure on behalf of the Sears family.

Wood called Caleb's death a “horrific tragedy.”

“I really feel badly for the family,” he said in an interview Friday.

But, he said he was not convinced that the proposed requirement for both a dental surgeon and an “anesthesiology provider” attending to children under sedation was needed, nor would it necessarily prevent loss of life.

The current “standard of care” requires that a dental surgeon must be accompanied by an assistant whose job is to “monitor the breathing and comfort of the patient,” said Wood, who is still a licensed but non-practicing dentist. That person can be a surgical assistant or a nurse trained for the role, he said.

In Caleb's case, the dentist, Dr. Michael Doucet, was not following the standard, Wood said.

He was placed on probation through 2022 by the state Dental Board in March, according to the board's website.

Having two medical professionals attend a dental procedure under anesthesia would not guarantee a safe outcome, Wood said, and the added cost could limit the public's access to dental services.

Dental anesthesia has been administered for years and is safe, but there is always some risk, he said.

Wood said he never sedated patients in his own practice.

The California Dental Association's political action committee has donated $3 million to $4 million to state candidates and parties for the past six years, a fourfold increase from the $879,000 contributed in 2000, according to state campaign finance reports.

Wood reported $17,000 in donations last year from the California Dental PAC, which gave a total of $3.7 million, including smaller contributions to the other 13 members of the Assembly Health Committee.

Overall, Wood received nearly $986,000 in campaign cash last year, a significant gain from the nearly $662,000 he reported in 2014 when he first ran for an open seat in the 2nd Assembly District vacated by North Coast legislator Wes Chesbro because of term limits.

Wood received 65 percent of the vote against a Republican opponent in 2014 and won a second term with 73 percent last year.

Fundraising is crucial even in what most would consider a safe Democratic district, Wood said, adding that he takes “nothing for granted.”

Wood said he's aware of the dental PAC's rise to prominence, but noted that other groups - including real estate interests, insurers, hospitals and doctors - also spend heavily on politics.

The dental PAC “puts a great deal of consideration into supporting candidates who are interested in solving the challenges experienced by the dental profession and their patients,” Alicia Malaby, dental association spokeswoman, said in an email.

Though the association opposed Thurmond's bill, Malaby said it “looks forward to continuing our engagement on the issue and helping implement sound public policy that does not disrupt or interfere with medically necessary care for young children.”

Wood said more information is needed on the impacts of administering anesthesia to children.

“Let's see if there are things we need to be doing to make it as safe as can be,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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