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Denver Health CEO to retire in August after sometimes controversial tenure

Denver Health CEO Robin Wittenstein will retire at the end of August following a sometimes rocky tenure at the hospital’s helm through the pandemic.

In a statement, Denver Health’s board of directors said it has created a committee and contracted with an executive search firm to find the hospital’s next top executive. Wittenstein was recruited from Penn State Health and took over as CEO in 2017.

In a message to employees, Wittenstein said she is “fully committed” to continuing her work through August and will work to ensure a smooth transition.

“The strength and resiliency of this institution are profound, especially over the past two years as we’ve navigated a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and continuously demonstrated our role as a safety net to the Denver community,” she wrote. “I am confident in our continued success and the board’s dedication to finding the right person to move Denver Health forward during a transformational time in health care.”

With operating expenses of about $1 billion a year, Denver Health employs about 7,800 people and provides health care to roughly one in three city residents.

Among Denver Health’s successes under Wittenstein, Denver voters in 2017 approved $75 million in bonds for a new outpatient care center at the hospital. About two years later, the hospital partnered with Denver Housing Authority to repurpose a largely unused building on its campus for senior housing.

Patricia Dean, chairwoman of Denver Health’s board of directors, said in a statement that the board is grateful for Wittenstein’s service. The board is collecting feedback from community leaders about what qualities are needed in the next CEO, and expects to announce a successor this summer.

“Robin has demonstrated exemplary, genuine leadership,” she said. “Under her leadership, Denver Health has made tremendous strides in building a vision and a strategy to meaningfully address health disparities and inequities; furthered our role as an anchor institution in the community; and navigated the remarkable challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But Wittenstein’s tenure has been controversial at times, particularly during the pandemic.

In November 2020, a whistleblower complaint alleged Denver Health had retaliated against employees who spoke publicly about working conditions during the pandemic or raised concerns about racism within the hospital.

Denver Health furloughed some employees during the first months of the pandemic, as did other hospitals. The timing rankled some employees and Denver City Council members, however, because executives were receiving bonuses based on the hospital’s performance in 2019.

Some Denver Health employees announced in May 2020 that they were trying to organize a union, citing concerns about the furloughs and inadequate stocks of protective equipment like masks. Quasi-public entities like Denver Health aren’t required to allow a vote on unionization in the way that most private employers are, and the hospital hasn’t recognized the union.

In May 2021, employees involved in the union said there had been some progress on improving pay and access to protective equipment, but concerns about retaliation against workers who reported problems remained unresolved. In July, a group of employees rallying for hazard pay alleged the hospital was understaffed — a concern affecting many hospitals more than a year into the pandemic.

A consultant hired in 2020 to analyze possible disparities within Denver Health found Black employees were more likely than white employees to be disciplined across multiple levels, ranging from a reminder of the hospital’s expectations to firing, according to documents filed in a discrimination lawsuit. Black employees were also more likely to leave voluntarily.