James Gomez, who advised governors and led change in California nursing homes, dies at 73

James Gomez advised California’s governors, shaped the careers of future leaders and dedicated himself to serving the public as he vaulted to the upper echelons of leadership in state government and ultimately the health care and financial industries.

He died Friday at age 73 of a suspected heart attack at his Sacramento home where he ran a consulting business that bore his name.

“Jim Gomez had a long, impressive career and I worked with him for many decades, particularly in my last years in Sacramento,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown. “He was someone you could trust and knew how to get things done.”

Gomez had retired in 2017 from his position as president and chief executive officer of the California Association of Health Facilities, a trade group for the state’s nursing homes that he led for 15 years.

Craig Cornett, who now heads up the group, said: “Jim was a legendary figure in the long-term care profession and state government. He was a mentor to hundreds of individuals and always advanced policies to promote women into leadership roles.”

As the association leader, Gomez emphasized the importance of overall quality improvement to nursing home operators, urged Medi-Cal leadership to tie pay to performance metrics, and championed “small house skilled nursing facilities” that have garnered high marks from residents and their relatives, said attorney Mark Reagan, the outside general counsel for the California Association of Health Facilities.

When Gomez arrived at the California Association of Health Facilities, Reagan said, Medi-Cal was making payments to skilled nursing facilities that were in line with their median cost to delivering services to their residents, Reagan said attorney Mark Reagan.

Essentially, there was no incentive to lower the ratio of patients to nurses or to expand the ranks of licensed vocational nurses or to improve care in other ways that might increase costs, Reagan said, because Medi-Cal wasn’t going to cover those expenses.

Gomez had a vision for a performance-based pay structure that could strengthen providers, improve care for residents and bolster workers with more stable wage and benefits, and he worked with labor, key facility operators and other stakeholders to advocate for changes in state policy, said Reagan, who works with Hooper, Lundy & Bookman in San Francisco.

Since the changes, California has ranked among the top three states in the nation on a number of quality metrics, said DeAnn Walters, one of several employees whom Gomez hired at the trade association to shepherd quality initiatives.

Walters, the director of clinical affairs and quality improvement, said California ranks among the top three states in areas such as preventing falls resulting in major injuries and helping residents maintain their ability to move independently.

Served on Golden 1’s board of directors

Those who worked with Gomez praised his leadership style, and Gomez’s son, Jason Belden, was among them. He worked with his father for several years at the California Association of Health Facilities.

Belden said: “Professionally, he was in a league of one. You’d have to comb many, many different thousands of people to try to find a leader who is both equally good at finding talented people and equally good at supporting those people becoming the best versions of themselves.”

Gomez also won accolades from the staff and leaders of Golden 1 Credit Union, where he was chairman of the board of directors at the time of his death. Membership grew to more than 1 million from 250,000 during Gomez’s nearly 30 years on the board.

A statement from the credit union said Gomez prioritized exceptional service to members: “He believed in uplifting all people, especially those of modest means, so that everyone has an opportunity to achieve financial wellness. Jim was a mentor to Golden 1 management and to many in the community.”

Led California prisons during expansion

Before his career in private industry, Gomez served as deputy executive officer of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System from 1997 to 2002, and prior to that, he led the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as its chief deputy and then its director.

Former CalPERS CEO Jim Burton described Gomez as “a remarkable leader, highly skilled, enthusiastic and driven.” Gomez led the internal administration at CalPERS.

“He focused his talents on improving CalPERS’ business practices, inspiring a customer service ethic that motivated his teams to produce demonstrably effective results for active and retired public employees,” Burton said.

Steven Merksamer, who was chief of staff for then-Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s, recalled Gomez as “a principled administrator” who oversaw the most extensive prison construction program in California’s history as the state attempted to address overcrowding.

Gomez is survived by his wife Chris Gomez, his daughter Karen Vega, Belden and four grandchildren. The family have not yet scheduled a memorial service.

Belden, who was 5 when his mother married Gomez, said his father was always extremely present.

“He never missed a game, never missed a practice,” Belden said. “He coached my teams from the time I was a kid until I got out of high school. He was there for everything. He didn’t miss anything for anybody. He was always there for people.”