SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Newly minted Sanford Health President and CEO Bill Gassen is making big changes to his leadership team, including the departure of his chief medical officer.

Gassen sent an email to employees Wednesday, Dec. 9, describing the changes. Perhaps most notably, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allison Suttle was absent from the list and has departed Sanford Health, according to the health system's HR chief.

Suttle has been a vocal proponent of a statewide mask mandate, a position Gassen has said he supported. On Sunday, Dec. 6, she tweeted out a New York Times opinion piece by columnist Frank Bruni that directly called out South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, accusing her of indifference to the mounting death toll from COVID-19 in the state.

There's no indication yet that Suttle's support of a state mask mandate had anything to do with her departure. A message sent to Suttle wasn't returned.

In a statement, Darren Walker, the newly titled chief people officer, said Suttle had "made the decision to depart Sanford Health to pursue new opportunities" and the organization wished her well.

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“Under the new leadership structure, we’ve transitioned from a CMO to a chief physician role. This position will be filled by Jeremy Cauwels, MD, and is intended to put more direct focus on our physician community and the important role they play in our organization," Walker said.

Gassen's new leadership team includes:

  • Micah Aberson as executive vice president, overseeing the Sanford Health Plan, Sanford's Foundation, Sanford Sports marketing, public policy, business development, innovation and research functions;

  • COO Matt Hocks will pick up responsibilities for facilities and technology services;
  • Bill Marlette, chief financial officer and treasurer, will be responsible for Sanford's corporate contracting and finances;
  • Walker, formerly chief human resources officer, will take on the title of chief people officer;
  • Jennifer Grennan will serve as chief legal officer;

  • Nathan Peterson, chief of staff;
  • Dr. David Shulkin will assume a strategic adviser role;
  • Kimber Severson, chief marketing officer;
  • Jennifer Grennan will serve as chief legal officer;
  • Cauwels will serve as chief physician, moving up from the role of senior vice president of clinic quality;

  • Erica DeBoer will assume the role of chief nursing officer, moving up from her previous role as senior executive director for nursing and clinical services and clinical informatics.

The leadership team shakeup comes amid an extraordinary moment of transition for the Sioux Falls-based health system, which has about 49,000 employees, major medical centers and hundreds of clinics in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Kelby Krabbenhoft, Sanford's long-time president and CEO, parted ways with Sanford Health on Nov. 24, after emailing staff to tell them why he wouldn't wear a mask. He had recovered from COVID-19, he claimed, and considered himself immune for months or longer. Evidence of long-term immunity is still limited, and his email drew national attention and scorn.

Gassen, appointed to replace Krabbenhoft, quickly put his own stamp on the organization, requiring all employees at all Sanford Health facilities to wear masks. He also permanently shelved ongoing merger talks with Intermountain Healthcare of Utah which had begun under his predecessor and were announced publicly in late October.