After a failed search for COO, then-CEO Steve Hannah hired Mary Casillas after she resigned from the board of directors. Photo by John Chadwell.
After a failed search for COO, then-CEO Steve Hannah hired Mary Casillas after she resigned from the board of directors. Photo by John Chadwell.

While the San Benito Health Care District board continues to navigate through its financial woes, there have been repeated concerns by nurses, doctors and the public over interim CEO Mary Casillas’ qualifications. 

Following a public letter submitted to BenitoLink demanding the health care district terminate Casillas, Board President Jeri Hernandez responded by saying the board trusted Casillas and that it has no intention “to make any changes to our executive team.”

In her letter, Hernandez stated that Casillas’ experience in healthcare management includes more than 27 years of hospital and healthcare administration and she holds a Master’s Degree in healthcare administration. 

Before being appointed as the interim CEO, Casillas was hired as the Chief Operating Officer after she resigned from the San Benito Health Care District Board of Directors, which she was elected to in 2018.

“Frankly, her qualifications for the position were far superior to those that had initially applied for the job,” Hernandez wrote in regards to the chief operating officer search. She added that then-CEO Steve Hannah determined Casillas “may be the best person for the job given her experience.”

Casillas served as COO for about seven months before taking the interim position. She had also served as interim CEO for five months before Hannah was hired in November 2020. 

Hernandez called Casillas the best candidate for the interim CEO position and confirmed the board deferred its plan to search for a permanent placement because of the declaration of fiscal emergency

BenitoLink reached out to a number of regional hospital CEOs to get their perspective on the qualifications that a CEO needs to lead a hospital. None would go on the record, but Watsonville Community Hospital is presently searching for a CEO, and on its website listed the education and professional experiences they feel applicants need, including: 

  •  Bachelor’s or Master’s degree preferred (e.g., healthcare administration, business administration, public administration); or equivalent experience. 
  • Seven to 10 years of progressive responsibility in hospital leadership, with a proven track record of accomplishments. CEO or COO experience over a licensed hospital entity preferred.
  • Demonstrated administrative and financial management expertise in medium size licensed acute care hospital preferred. Experience with public bond financing is desired.
  •  Experience leading and guiding an organization through substantial change.
  • Membership as a Diplomat or Fellow in American College of Healthcare Executives is desired. 

Watsonville’s standards are in line with which states: “Hospital CEOs generally come from a medical background and almost always hold a Masters of hospital or healthcare administration. Prior to becoming CEOs, they must have eight to 10 years of experience in administration, management and healthcare positions.”

On the other hand, other hospitals in search of a CEO, such as Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, are more broad about the required experience stating candidates “Must have significant experience in healthcare operations at the administrator, assistant/associate administrator or similar level.”

Casillas has a Masters Degree with Honors in healthcare administration, along with a Bachelor of Science degree in management, and an Associates Degree in radiology technology. All of her work experience, going back to 1995, has been as a consultant or in various director positions solely in radiology, including at Dominican Hospital/Dignity Health in Santa Cruz. 

Casillas had no COO or CEO experience before she was hired by Hannah as COO. 

BenitoLink compared Casillas’ qualifications and compensation with the hospital’s previous three CEOs: Jordan Wright, Hannah, and Ken Underwood. Hazel Hawkins provided their resumes and compensation packages.

Ken Underwood was hired in 2000, initially for two years, at $336,740 annually. He had the least academic credentials among the recent hospital leaders, with a Bachelor of Arts in public administration, but was the most experienced. Prior to becoming CEO at Hazel Hawkins for 20 years, he worked in healthcare since 1972, and in CEO positions at two hospitals: Century City Hospital in Century City; Westside Hospital in Los Angeles; and COO at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

Jordan Wright, was initially hired on June 29, 2020, for three months, at $20,000 per month to fill in as interim CEO between Underwood’s retirement and Hannah’s hiring. He had a Masters in health administration and Bachelor of Arts in political science. He began working in healthcare administration in 1992. He was director of operations at Stanford University School of Medicine and then vice president of strategic business development and chief strategy officer at Dignity Health for four years. He was promoted to president and CEO at Dignity Health in 2017, and worked there until joining Hazel Hawkins.

Steve Hannah was hired Nov. 1, 2021, and terminated Oct. 14, 2022, at $350,000 per year on a four-year contract. He received a $10,000 pay increase in 2021 and a $360,563 severance. He had a Masters in healthcare administration and Bachelor of Arts in business administration. Counting Hazel Hawkins, he had over 20 years experience as CFO, COO and CEO at eight hospitals.

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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...