With over a decade of experience in the public sector, Jacey Cooper has supported and led California’s Medicaid program in various senior leadership positions, including as Medicaid director since January 2020. This is no small feat when you consider that California has the largest Medicaid population in the nation, surpassing the total population of residents in many states. Under Jacey’s leadership, California Medicaid has undergone exciting innovation, including the launch of California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal (CalAIM), a multiyear plan to transform the state’s Medicaid program and enable it to work more seamlessly with other social services.

The Center for Health Care Strategies sends a warm congratulations to Jacey, who is headed to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in late October to serve as Director of the State Demonstrations Group. But before she goes, she reflects on her passion for the work she does, her leadership style, and how she supports her team.

About the Portraits in Public Sector Leadership

Public sector leaders are the backbone of the U.S. health care safety net, overseeing critical services to support the health and well-being of millions of people across the nation. Portraits in Public Sector Leadership is a series that highlights public sector health care leaders across the country who share their inspiration for their roles — what they are proud of, what the work means to them, and how they strive to make public services work better for people across the nation. View the series


  • Who: Jacey Cooper
  • Current Role: California Medicaid Director and Chief Deputy Director at the Department of Health Care Services
  • Public Sector Tenure: 15 years
  • CHCS Connection: Medicaid Leadership Institute

Q. What’s your public sector passion?

A. I fundamentally believe high-quality, accessible health care is a human right and believe policy, financing, and delivery system transformation can make that a reality for all. A subset passion is making behavioral health parity a reality.

Q. What’s a success — big or small — that you experienced recently?

A. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently approved California’s Justice Involved 1115 waiver under CalAIM, which is the first in the nation to extend Medicaid coverage for select services 90 days prior to release. Over the past decade, the proportion of incarcerated individuals in California with an active mental health case rose by 63 percent, and California’s correctional health care system drug overdose rate for incarcerated individuals is three times the national prison rate. 

Poor health outcomes and deaths among incarcerated people is a critical health equity issue because Californians of color are disproportionately incarcerated — including for mental health and substance use disorder-related offenses. Our goal is to provide appropriate health care interventions at earlier opportunities, and reduce acute service utilization and adverse health outcomes, while providing a coordinated re-entry into the community.

Q. What keeps you motivated, especially on difficult days?

A. The members of our program. Medicaid can be for a moment in someone’s life or a lifetime.  Members are at the center of all my decisions, and they motivate me daily.  I want to build a program that says, “We thought of you before you got here,” not “How can I resolve your complaint?”.

Q. How do you address staff burnout?

A. I strongly encourage my team to take long weekends or vacations to recharge. I have never denied a requested day off or vacation. I remind them to build teams and systems that can function when they’re gone. I also always tell them — family first (whatever that means to them) and I mean that. People need to know we have their backs.

Q. How do you rest and get reenergized outside of work?

A. With four kids, rest is a foreign concept. However, to reenergize outside of work I love to plan parties and events or organize things, like closets, my garage, etc. For some, this might sound painful, but it brings peace to my soul. And yes, my kids hate this about me — well they hate organizing but love the parties. In another lifetime, I would love to be a wedding planner.

Q. What’s your caffeine source of choice — coffee, tea, soda, or are you lucky enough to have endless energy?  

A. I drink black coffee all day — it calms me. A colleague made me a sign that has hung in my office for a decade that says “Keep Calm, Drink Coffee” with a coffee mug instead of the British crown. It is one of my most treasured work gifts. But recently I have dabbled in mixing and making my own teas.  

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