Dr. Assaad Sayah prepares to step forward for a Feb. 26 roundtable hearing into a death at Somerville Hospital. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge Health Alliance trustees on Wednesday named Dr. Assaad Sayah chief executive, choosing an insider with 14 years at the health care system over a California hospital executive. Sayah, 58, had served as interim chief executive since June.

After a nationwide search that brought in 150 applications, a 13-member committee had winnowed the candidates to Sayah and Dr. David A. Tam, most recently chief operating officer of Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and before that chief administrative officer of two hospitals in Palomar Health System, a large safety-net organization in San Diego. Cambridge is also a large safety-net system serving many patients with Medicaid or without insurance.

Tam also served in the U.S. Navy and held administrative posts in military health care organizations.

Two trustees on the search committee said Wednesday that they had originally favored hiring an outsider for the role of chief executive, but changed their opinion after considering Sayah’s recent performance, familiarity with CHA and demonstrated dedication to its values. “I started out favoring an outsider,” said trustee Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services. “I came to believe the interim CEO would be best.”

She said Sayah had encountered “several bumps in the road” as he moved to higher positions in the health care system, “some of his own making, some caused by others.” Sayah’s reaction showed “a capacity to learn … a capacity to learn and listen and change,” she said.

The vote to select him was unanimous.

Won praise for crisis response

Sayah’s appointment is contingent on contract negotiations, the Alliance said in a press release. He would succeed Patrick Wardell, who resigned in June after leading the organization through an affiliation with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (now part of Beth Israel Lahey Health), stabilizing its finances and expanding CHA’s reach into western and northern communities around Cambridge and Somerville.

Wardell also headed the system when it faced widespread fallout over lack of transparency in the death of Laura Levis, 34, of Somerville, in September 2016. Levis encountered a locked door to the Somerville Hospital emergency room and couldn’t find a way to get in while suffering a severe asthma attack; emergency room staff didn’t see her collapsed outside. Hospital staff and officials didn’t initially tell her husband, Peter DeMarco, the full story of what happened, and public outrage erupted when DeMarco wrote an anguished article in the Boston Globe magazine in November 2018.

Sayah, as chief medical officer and former chief of the Alliance’s emergency department, played a major role in responding to the crisis. Several trustees praised his performance at a City Council hearing about the Levis case in February. But the search committee did not question him about the case during interviews, a committee member said Wednesday.

History of leadership

Sayah joined CHA in 2006 as chief of emergency medicine, after holding leadership positions in emergency departments at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Caritas Good Samaritan Medical Center and Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

His assignment at the Alliance was to turn around an ailing emergency department, and he did. He redesigned the way the service worked, reducing drastically the time patients spent there and increasing patient satisfaction. The department became a national model.

Sayah also served as president of the medical staff and was the Alliance’s chief medical officer. Besides rescuing the emergency department, he led an expansion of primary care resulting in 50 percent growth, the Alliance said in a press release.

A summary of Sayah’s positive attributes by the search committee said: “His inspiring personal story and depth of understanding of the immigrant experience is very relevant to CHA’s patient population.” During the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, two trustees said Sayah’s experience as an immigrant would resonate with foreign-born patients.

They didn’t give details, and written material didn’t include any. Alliance spokesman David Cecere said he couldn’t immediately provide information on Sayah’s personal background.