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Sanford Health's New CEO Bill Gassen on Emerging from Turbulence

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   May 13, 2021

Bill Gassen, who assumed the CEO position near the end of last year, shares what it was like being elevated during the pandemic, how COVID-19 altered the organization's focus on growth strategies, and why the organization is poised to transform rural healthcare delivery.

Sanford Health experienced internal and external turbulence towards the end of 2020.

Like many hospitals and health systems, Sanford faced significant clinical and financial upheaval related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, longtime CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft issued an email to Sanford employees stating that he would not be wearing a mask following his recovery from COVID-19.

He resigned shortly thereafter, ending a more than two-decade tenure at the integrated, nonprofit health system based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Weeks after Krabbenhoft’s resignation, Sanford and Intermountain Healthcare suspended an $11 billion plan to merge.

Related: Intermountain, Sanford Suspend $11B Merger

Bill Gassen, who worked for Sanford for over nine years in leadership roles including vice president of human resources integration and corporate services, chief human resources officer, and most recently chief administrative officer, assumed the position of CEO and immediately took charge of the organization. His focus as a leader has been on serving the system’s patients, communities, and staff while providing a steady hand after months of uncertainty.

Gassen recently spoke with HealthLeaders, where he shared what it was like being elevated during the pandemic, how COVID-19 altered the organization's focus on growth strategies, and why the organization is poised to transform rural healthcare delivery.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HL: How did your internal succession prepare you to lead Sanford Health?

Gassen: I was fortunate that Sanford Health has been intentional about prioritizing succession planning, which allowed for a smooth transition for me.

I've had the opportunity to gain holistic exposure to the organization starting in the legal department. I had an opportunity to provide support directly to our physicians, clinics, hospitals, and to our rural health footprint. That was the first part of my time at Sanford, which gave me an incredible grounding in the mission of the organization and the way in which we provide care for our people, patients, and the relationships that we have with our communities as well.

Moving on from that invaluable exposure, I came through the role of chief human resources officer. The organization [has] an incredible responsibility and opportunity to make sure that we're doing a great job taking care of our people so that they're able to do an incredible job of taking care of our patients.

HL: What was it like taking over Sanford during such a turbulent time and what have your first five months leading looked like?

Gassen: In many ways, the unprecedented challenges brought by the pandemic have provided clarity about our priorities moving forward. This organization, like many around the country, had to coalesce around this fight in the pandemic. It allowed us to come together and make sure that we're completely united around that fight.

Through that timeframe, I gained an increased appreciation for our physicians, researchers, nurses, the long-term care staff, and all the non-clinical employees that we have as well. Over the last year, these individuals got up with one thing in mind, and that was making sure that we did everything we possibly could to take care of our patients, residents, and communities, and make sure that we're able to win in this fight against the coronavirus.

HL: What are Sanford's growth strategies for this year and beyond?

Gassen: At Sanford Health, we've benefited significantly over the past decade or more from growth. We've added some incredible communities and well-established organizations that comprise what is Sanford Health today.

[Where we are today], growth is not a top priority for me. I want to look at growth as a tool, as opposed to an objective for us. Right now, we're focused on making sure that all of our energy and resources are concentrated around [those we serve].

Related: Fitch Upgrades Sanford Health, Downgrades Summa Health

If we have a growth opportunity that's presented to us that I believe is going to allow us to improve our quality, allow us to improve our safety, increase access, and expand service lines, then that's something I'll be interested in. If it doesn't do that, then we're probably going to take a pass on that. We want to make sure that any growth that we enter in the future is going to allow us to be better at what we do.

HL: In light of the paused Intermountain merger plans, what has Sanford learned about M&A strategies moving forward?

Gassen: [Intermountain is] a great organization that I have a lot of respect for and have a lot of respect for their leaders. The decision, that I made along with our board,  to not go forward with that [merger] had absolutely nothing to do with Intermountain but had everything to do with Sanford Health.

What I mean by that is that Sanford Health needed to focus inward. We needed to make sure that we were doing everything we could to fully optimize and capitalize on the assets and resources that we have, to make sure that we're doing everything we could for [our communities].

As opportunities present themselves, and we've had some come forward, we have to evaluate those through that lens of [whether] it is in the best interest of our patients, of our people, and our communities.

HL: In March, Sanford announced a $300 million initiative to transform rural healthcare. What is driving this initiative and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Gassen: One of the goals that we have at the organization is that we want to be the leading rural healthcare provider in the country. To do that, we need to make sure that we are equipped to do well in the future. One of the ways that we're able to do that is by securing the physician pipeline. Today at Sanford, we've got over 1,600 physicians and 1,000 advanced practice providers who come in every single day and provide primary care, specialty, and subspecialty care.

Related: Denny Sanford gifts $300 million to Sanford Health

Through Mr. [Denny] Sanford's gift, a big portion of that $300 million is dedicated specifically to standing up eight new graduate medical educational programs, and those programs are going to allow us to have the assurance that the great physicians that we have today are going to be here tomorrow.

Physicians who train with us through their residency and fellowships end up staying with us oftentimes. It's an incredible recruitment tool for us that is going to allow us to assure those communities that the great care that they receive today is going to be there for them and for their children and grandchildren tomorrow.

HL: What other health system initiatives are you excited about for the upcoming year?

Gassen: In addition to the incredible benefit that we're going to see through the expansion of the graduate medical education programs, we have to invest back into the health and wellness of our community as well.

Mr. Sanford's generosity is allowing us to construct outdoor fields for children. We've saved for athletes of all ages, [skills], and ability to pay. We want to make sure that people know that the softball, baseball, soccer fields are going to be made available to the community. We want that to be a community asset where people come and find healthy ways to grow and expand within the community.

Beyond that, we're focused on a virtual strategy. That’s the next phase of Mr. Sanford's giving. What we intend to do is continue to expand the services that we provide today in the communities that we wouldn't otherwise be able to access.

Related: Sanford Health Finance Exec on System's Preparations for COVID During Flu Season

“In many ways, the unprecedented challenges brought by the pandemic have provided clarity about our priorities moving forward.”

Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Sanford USD Medical Center and Hospital, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Sanford Health.

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