Joan Budden to retire after 5 years leading Priority Health

Joan Budden, president and CEO at Priority Health in Grand Rapids, announced she will retire Jan. 1 after five years leading the Grand Rapids-based health insurer and 12 years with Spectrum Health, the parent company.

Budden, 59, began her career at Priority Health in 2009 as chief marketing officer and was named CEO in early 2016, following the retirement of Michael Freed.

Earlier this year, Budden’s personal and work life changed a lot when her husband Doug lost his sister, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the state went into lockdown with social distancing becoming the norm.

“It gave us pause for life being so short and COVID reminded us of this,” Budden told Crain’s in an interview. “Working at home (the past several months) reminded us how much we get along and like to be with each other.”

Budden said she never thought she would work until normal retirement age of 65 or more because of her family — two grown children, Mitchell and Megan —and interests outside of work.

“Knowing the company is in a strong position has allowed me to plan for the next chapter in my life which includes spending more time with family and continuing my passion for mentoring and community service,” Budden said in a statement.

“I’m incredibly proud and honored to have worked with exceptional people over the last 12 years within the company, along with our partners and community leaders to improve health. Priority Health is in good hands with a strong leadership team.”

Spectrum Health has hired the Furst Group for an internal and external national search for the next president of Priority Health, said Tina Freese Decker, president and CEO of Spectrum, an integrated system that operates 14 hospitals and an employed medical group.

“Joan’s focus on affordability and value have been vital in advancing us toward our vision of personalized health made simple, affordable and exceptional,” said Freese Decker in a statement.

“She cares deeply about the company but more importantly she cares about individuals — and is willing to give generously of her time and talent to mentor others,” Freese Decker said.

Budden said she spoke about her future two years ago with Freese Decker, who had just been hired to replace the retiring Richard Breon.

“We committed to a two or three year time frame,” Budden said. “I decided (to leave) on the shorter end. Six months notice is a lot, but we want to find the right person.”

Once she steps down on Jan. 1, Budden said, she will split time in Grand Rapids and her hometown of Detroit, where she maintains a condo.

Under Budden’s leadership, Priority Health has grown significantly to become the third largest provider-sponsored health plan in the country with 1 million members, the company said.

Earlier this year, Priority merged with Total Health Care in Detroit and also crafted an in-state affiliation with Cigna Health that will begin early next year.

“The partnership with Cigna is not an acquisition. We have a strategic partnership where Cigna is our arm outside of Michigan (for members needing coverage),” Budden said. “Now we are their strategic partner inside Michigan.”

Budden said Cigna will share Priority’s provider network but the two health insurers also will work together on evidence-based medicine and healthy behavior projects.

During her tenure, Budden championed many strategies, products and programs with the goal of ensuring everyone has access to affordable care — as a member, employer, agent or provider.

For example, Priority Health offered financial support to members and employers during the COVID-19 pandemic through premium credits and is waiving cost sharing for all virtual visits through the end of the year.

Budden has received awards and recognitions over the years. Michigan Women Forward recently selected her as a recipient of its 2020 Woman of Achievement and Courage Award. She also was named a Detroit 500 Honoree in 2018 and 2019, a Notable Women in Health care by Crain’s in 2018 and one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan by Crain’s in 2016.

She graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and also received a master’s degree from Wayne State University.

Before joining Priority Health in 2009, Budden held various executive positions at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

She currently serves as a board member for the Detroit and Grand Rapids Economic Clubs, Van Andel Institute, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, UFP, Independent Bank Corporation and Alliance of Community Health Plans, a national leadership organization focused on advocating for better health care nationwide.

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