Susan Mullaney’s first interactions with doctors and nurses occurred at an early age. Growing up in the Boston area, her mother was frequently ill, and, beginning at the age of 8, Mullaney spent much of her time visiting her mom at local hospitals. 

“It was difficult to see my mother go through that, but the kindness of the doctors and nurses who took care of her made a huge, lifelong impression on me,” Mullaney, now president of Kaiser Permanente Washington, recalled during an interview in her corner office on the third floor of one of four chalk-white office buildings that comprise the company’s administrative headquarters in Renton. “I feel like, at an early age, I had found my people. That was a world that I wanted to be a part of because it was about doing good things.”

That interest followed Mullaney through college, where she earned a master’s degree in healthcare policy and management at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and later moved to the Midwest, where she worked at Vivius, a healthcare industry startup, and then Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis, where she held several leadership positions.

In 2008, Mullaney moved to Portland, Oregon, when she was hired by Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente to serve as the hospital administrator at Sunnyside Medical Center in nearby Clackamas. Five years later, she oversaw Kaiser Permanente’s opening of the Westside Medical Center, also located near Portland, in Hillsboro.

When the company set out to acquire Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative in 2016, Mullaney was tapped to help lead the planning effort to prepare and integrate two legacy businesses — both healthcare organizations were founded in 1945 — for the $1.8 billion acquisition, which was finalized in February 2017. 

Group Health and its 651,000 members and 6,000 employees formed the bedrock of the newly branded Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington, otherwise known as Kaiser Permanente Washington, which Mullaney oversees today.

Kaiser Permanente Washington has claimed about 20 percent of its industry’s marketshare in Washington state, and collects about $4 billion in premiums annually. It serves more than 700,000 members and employs nearly 8,000 people — including more than 900 physicians, and more than 1,200 nurses. It operates more than 30 healthcare facilities in 19 cities throughout Washington state.

For Mullaney, the past two years have been wildly busy as the company grows its presence in Washington state, and hires staff to support that growth.

The company hired 500 new employees last year, according to Kaiser Permanente Washington staff, and more than 400 physicians were hired by the company in the last two years. “Everybody has a hard time recruiting doctors,” Mullaney said. “That is huge. It speaks volumes to the reputation that we have.”

Last summer, the company announced it would open five new medical centers — in Gig Harbor (opened in December), West Olympia, Seattle (one in Ballard; one in South Lake Union, which opened in May), and Smokey Point near Marysville by 2020. By 2027, the company plans to spend $1 billion to expand, modernize, and upgrade its technology and facilities throughout Washington state.

“I have the fun job of how fast can you expand the clinical footprint so that we can reach more people more conveniently and bring our unique brand of medicine to the market,” Mullaney said.

Mullaney lives in Medina with her wife, Shari Kauls, and their two daughters — Evelyn, 10, and Gloria, 8. 

Mullaney discussed her healthcare career, Kaiser Permanente’s growing presence in Washington state, and her interest in building our region’s STEM-educated workforce.

Photo by Michael Nunes

Q: What drew you to work for Kaiser Permanente a little over a decade ago?

A: I had just gotten a promotion at Fairview Health Services when my phone rang, and it was Kaiser Permanente calling me to say, “Would you be interested in coming to Portland, Oregon? We are going to invest a billion dollars in our hospital system, and we are looking for somebody to come out and do that and lead it.”

I was intrigued. But what’s so important is that (whatever) company you join, you need to understand what level of aspiration they have, especially in healthcare. Also, it’s a really short life, so who you choose to have your career with matters. 

So, I came out (to Portland), visited (Kaiser Permanente), and I was just blown away. For me, especially at that point in my career, it was, “Gosh, this would just be a fabulous opportunity.” I was not wrong. There was no looking back.

Q: What has kept you interested in the healthcare field? 

A: I couldn’t tell you that in college I decided I wanted to be CEO of a healthcare company, and here I am. I didn’t have a clear path like that. 

I just always followed what I’m passionate about. I’m fascinated by medicine and science. I think we are living in one of the most interesting times in medicine. Everything is going to change so much with what we can do with technology; it’s exciting to be a part of it. So, that’s how I got into it. 

Q: You didn’t set out TO BE the president of a healthcare organization. But that’s exactly what happened. How did that progression occur in your career? 

A: I’ve always taken jobs that seemed really interesting, where I could be helpful. Always looking for ways to add value, being very authentic in that, and never saying no to an assignment is a good recipe for any career.

I have always thought I have to constantly be evolving because to stay stagnant means that you are shrinking. It’s just much more exhilarating and satisfying to constantly be stretching and learning and growing.  

It’s amazing what you can accomplish with focus and a lot of hard work. In the job that you have today, you have to make sure that you are delivering in an A-plus way, hands down. You have to look for 20 percent more capacity to stretch yourself to grow and contribute in broader ways to the organization so that you are always adding value. 

Q: Describe your experience in helping to lead Kaiser Permanente’s acquisition of Group Health. 

A: For me, it was all about, “What’s our strategy? How are we really going to add value in this marketplace? We know what makes us unique and different, so how do we get back to that and really deliver on that promise of world-class medicine, a great experience, and at an affordable price point, and then get everything lined up around that?”

Then I thought long and hard about how it would feel for a Group Health employee to put on a Kaiser Permanente white coat for the first time. I was thinking there would be this baton handoff from the former Group Health CEO to me, and it would be a moment broadcast throughout the whole organization. What am I going to say? What do I want everybody to know? 

It just so happened that my wife, Shari, and I had recently gone to Riga, Latvia, with her family. My father-in-law, Ivars, was so excited to be back in his home country. At the same time, I have never met anybody prouder to be a United States citizen. It was there in Riga that I got the inspiration for my welcoming of the Group Health organization. (My message was,) “I think you are always going to be proud to have been a Group Health employee. Now, welcome to the great state of Kaiser Permanente, where you can be equally proud.”

I really paid attention to that cultural transition. I wanted everybody to feel honored for their Group Health past and incredibly proud and energized to be a part of Kaiser Permanente.

Q: You are deeply involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in Washington state, and serve on the board of Washington STEM. Why is that issue so important to you? 

A: We have a shortage of medical assistants, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacy technicians — you name it — and the demand is only going up. On any given day, there are more than 1,000 job openings for medical assistants (across the state). We have to do something different. 

We invested $1.2 million over two years in the STEM program. That’s high impact. A half-million kids will have access to STEM programming, and it supports over 600 educators in about 45 school districts across the state. It will help support kids and get them connected to and energized about STEM.

Q: Why is there a workforce shortage? Why does Kaiser Permanente Washington need to invest $1.2 million to spur an interest in STEM careers? 

A: There’s just so much growth in healthcare because of the aging of the population, and there’s just more and more demand for jobs.

We need to make sure that we have very focused ways to get kids and adults. We are retraining a lot of people on second careers, people who are in their 20s and late 30s, and saying, “Let’s help you get retrained so that you can have a career in healthcare.” 

There are a lot of families in this country — and here in this community — whose total savings is $400. Four hundred dollars! So, someone can say a career in healthcare looks great, but they might have absolute limitations because, financially, they can’t pay for it. Financially, if they’ve got little ones at home, they can’t afford child support.

The bottom line is you have to have really focused ways to get people connected to those kinds of educational opportunities — and in a lot of instances, you have to help support them financially find their way to it because they just don’t have the money.

Part of our investment fully funds 24 scholarships for people to get the training and education to be a medical assistant. It’s not just about saying, “Hey, here’s a great training program.” You have to put those other supports in place.

Q: You live in Medina. Outside of work, what are some activities you and your family are involved in on the Eastside? 

A: This morning, I was up at 5:15 to do my 3.5-mile run on Evergreen Point Road in Medina. Shari and I are members of the Bellevue Club. Our kids are in karate and the swim club. Shari volunteers in the library and classroom at our kids’ school, Medina Elementary. 

People ask me, “What hobbies do you have?” Well, we have these young kids. We have fun being together. Our life kind of takes place around that. We are a really active family. We are just really involved in the community. My life on the Eastside is really nice. It’s a great community.