Former Ascension CEO, the first to lead the health system, passes away
Former Ascension Health CEO Donald Brennan—who helped form what became the country’s largest Catholic health system—has passed away at age 83.
In addition to leading St. Louis-based Ascension until 2001, Brennan held the top posts at Providence in Washington, Group Health and co-chaired a Washington state health commission. He passed away peacefully at his home in Bothell, Wash. on Feb. 12.
Brennan was initially hired as a consultant to help plan the merger between the two Catholic systems that formed Ascension. After spending a year on the project, he was named CEO of the new health system, said his son, Steve Brennan, who serves as Nashville, Tenn.-based Change Healthcare’s senior manager of state health policy.
Ascension’s current president and CEO, Joe Impicciche, said in a statement that Ascension owes a debt of gratitude to Brennan for his “visionary leadership and commitment to our mission.”
“As our first CEO, Don was a key leader in the collaborative process to establish the mission and values that continue to guide Ascension today,” Impicciche said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Don and his family.”
When Brennan retired as Ascension’s CEO in 2001, the health system had $6 billion in annual revenue and 71 owned or affiliated hospitals. It has since grown even bigger. Ascension was a 150-hospital system with north of $25 billion in annual revenue as of June 30, 2020.
Brennan started his career in the finance department at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Boulder, Colo., where we worked from 1976 to 1980. He then became the first non-religious CEO for what was then known as the Sisters of Providence Health System.
He left Providence in 1993 when he was appointed by Washington state’s then-Gov. Mike Lowry to co-chair the Washington Health Services Commission. Established by the 1993 Health Services Act, the group worked to formulate a comprehensive healthcare reform strategy.
“When we talk about really putting your money where your mouth is, he believed in healthcare reform enough to step away from his job to make it a reality,” Steve Brennan said.
After Washington lawmakers repealed much of the Health Services Act, Brennan stepped down from the commission and became CEO of the St. Louis-based Daughters of Charity National Health System in 1995. During his tenure, the health system merged with the Sisters of St. Joseph Health System of Ann Arbor, Mich. to become Ascension.
Initially, Daughters of Charity had hired Brennan as a consultant to held plan its merger with the Sisters of St. Joseph, Steve Brennan said. After spending almost a year designing the merger to create Ascension, he became Ascension’s first CEO.
After retiring from Ascension in 2001, Brennan served on the board of Swedish Health Services from 2003 to 2010.
Steve Brennan said he’s spoken recently with a number of his dad’s former colleagues, who describe his leadership style as very collaborative.
“He was a very humble person and was very careful to give credit elsewhere and to really reach out to experts and people in his organization to be leaders, whether informal or formal,” he said.
Brennan, who also served on the board of the Catholic Health Association, grew up in Denver as the youngest of five children. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Colorado.
Throughout Brennan’s life, his son said he remained dedicated to his family, which included his wife of nearly 60 years, Kathy, four sons and 11 grandchildren. He loved scuba diving, golfing and running.
“He was just very much a champion of life balance and really educated all of us on how important that is,” Steve Brennan said.