Providence Health officials said in an email to area health providers Friday that Providence St. Mary Medical Center’s chief executive, Susan Blackburn, is leaving the hospital.

No explanation was give for Blackburn’s departure.

The announcement came three days after the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, Vanessa Waldref, broke the news that the Walla Walla hospital has agreed to pay $22.7 million to resolve allegations it fraudulently billed state and federal health care programs for medically unnecessary neurosurgery procedures between 2013 and 2018.

The actions of two neurosurgeons employed by St. Mary during that time were at the heart of this case, the largest ever in this region, according to Waldref.

The case began in January 2020, when the former medical director of neurosurgery at Providence St. Mary Medical Center filed a complaint in federal court.

Similar concerns arose at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle — owned by Providence — in 2017, when a Seattle Times investigation exposed a range of internal concerns about patient safety.

After The Times investigation was published, Swedish’s CEO and the neuroscience institute’s top surgeon, who faced nearly 50 internal complaints within 16 months of his arrival, resigned.

Advertising

Under Blackburn’s leadership, St. Mary has been lauded for educational and community programs, including one giving Walla Walla Community College nursing students the opportunity to continue hands-on learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to steering the hospital through the health care crisis of the pandemic, Blackburn has served on area boards such as Providence St. Mary Foundation and Walla Walla YMCA.

A Washington State University graduate, she’s been with the hospital for 22 years, according to her professional profile.

In 2011, Blackburn was promoted to chief operating officer after several years as vice president of human resources and support services.

She is being replaced by Reza Kaleel, who has been the chief executive officer at Kadlec Regional Medical Center, according to Joel Gilbertson, chief executive of the Washington and Montana region of Providence overseeing 13 Providence facilities including Richland and Walla Walla, and Scott O’Brien, chief operating officer for the same region, in their memo.

Kaleel has a “track record of success and deep knowledge of both Catholic health care and the culture of Kadlec,” they stated in the announcement.

Advertising

Also in their message, Gilbertson and O’Brien said that, in the weeks to come, the best organizational structure for the Walla Walla and Tri-Cities hospitals will be determined.

“For all but a handful of leadership team members with new reporting relationships, our day-to-day operations and delivery of excellent care by our caregivers will continue unchanged. We will share details as a new organizational structure comes into focus,” Gilbertson and O’Brien said.

Officials at St. Mary did not immediately return a request for comment.

Information from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times was included in this report.