Michigan State University, Henry Ford Health partnership will continue without Lassiter

The departure of Henry Ford Health CEO Wright Lassiter III is hardly surprising — he’s been a rising star in health care nationally for years — but it comes in the middle of several projects that are career- and legacy-defining.

The most prominent of the projects is a partnership with Michigan State University with plans for a new research center located south of the health system’s Detroit campus on West Grand Boulevard. It will house researchers and physicians on translational research — specifically looking at cancer, neuroscience, women’s health, imaging and public health.

The partnership between the health system and university is beginning to blossom. Most recently, MSU approved faculty appointments for 115 researchers at Henry Ford. But it’s the groundbreaking of a $150 million joint research institute in the next 15 months and simultaneous creation of a four-year medical school in the city that is the linchpin to the partnership.

Henry Ford physicians and nurses will act as faculty in the program that will house upwards of 25 students in human medicine and another 50 in osteopathic medicine and represent the first major medical school expansion in Detroit in more than 100 years.

Lassiter noted the importance of a new medical school and improved care in the nation’s most segregated city when the two organizations signed the deal in 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing injustices and recent protests in cities across our nation have amplified the importance of and urgency for innovation and discovery that radically improves the health of all of the communities we serve,” he said in a statement.

But now Lassiter’s right hand and President and COO of Henry Ford Health Bob Riney lead those efforts. Riney, a longtime executive at the health system, will serve as interim CEO upon Lassiter’s departure on Aug. 1.

Henry Ford Health declined to make Riney available for an interview.

Norm Beauchamp, executive vice president of MSU Health Sciences, told Crain’s while Lassiter was instrumental in the partnership, the projects will carry on.

“In order to get where we got, the entire leadership at Henry Ford and MSU had to see the value,” Beauchamp told Crain’s. “What follows in the wake of Wright leaving is the next person in the organization, Bob Riney, takes over. Bob is equally passionate about this because he was involved in the discussions. We’re going to miss Wright but we’re excited about this will be part of his legacy.”

The 400-square-foot research institute and medical school in Detroit will mimic MSU’s venture with Spectrum in Grand Rapids. The pair built a $250 million innovation park more than a decade ago that has attracted significant investment in the region. Last year, pharmaceutical manufacturer Perrigo Co. broke ground on a new 125,000-square-foot headquarters at the innovation park.

Lassiter said Thursday he wasn’t worried about the future of the research center.

“When you sign a 30-year partnership, you know that the fruits of the labor in that partnership will occur over time,” Lassiter told Crain’s Thursday. “We are on track with all the milestones we set during the first year of the partnership. I’m not concerned at all what I’m leaving behind and both of our board are 100 percent committed to the partnership.”

Instead he will become CEO of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health.

The allure of running one of the largest health systems in the country — the 140-hospital system stretches over 21 states — proved too great.

“It has an explicit focus on the kinds of things that we have a focus on at Henry Ford and that I’ve had a focus on during my whole career, which is serving the entirety of the community and working hard to ensure that people can live out their best lives from a health and wellness perspective,” Lassitertold Crain’s Thursday. “The ability to impact CommonSpirit’s platform, which is more than 30 percent of the United States, as well as some international communities is the kind of impact that I’m proud to be able to lead.”

Lassiter joined Henry Ford Health in December 2014. Under his leadership, Henry Ford Health also completed two successful mergers, expanding its geographic footprint, and expanded globally with the 2020 opening of partner hospitals in Saudi Arabia and India.

During Lassiter’s tenure, Henry Ford also significantly increased its quality performance, earning top honors in several publicly reported quality programs and also received outlook and ratings upgrades from Moody’s and S&P services.

Lassiter was named 2021 Newsmaker of the Year by Crain’s Detroit Business and multiple year recognitions among the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare by Modern Healthcare.

Lassiter is chair of the American Hospital Association and was the 2021 chair of the Detroit Regional Chamber and was key to the return in September of the Mackinac Policy Conference to an in-person format during the pandemic.

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual conference went on hiatus in 2020 due to COVID-19 and its occurrence in 2021 was unsure. But with Lassiter as his chair last year, the conference was able to institute a vaccination mandate for attendees. Coupled with the presence of Lassiter and his management team, the event would go on in the middle of a pandemic with reassurance that no major breakout would occur.

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