PEORIA — The chief executive officer of UnityPoint Health in Central Illinois said she will retire June 30 after 43 years with the organization.

Debbie Simon started her career at Methodist Hospital as a nurse in 1976, not long after receiving her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Illinois.

“I’m originally from Charleston,” said Simon during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “My husband’s job brought us here and I ended up being offered a job at Methodist in a new unit that had just opened for open heart surgery patients. It was a really exciting time to be a nurse.”

Simon later received a master’s degree in business administration from Bradley University and completed a Wharton Nurse Executive Fellowship and Henry Crown Fellowship. She rose through the ranks of clinical and operational leadership at Methodist to eventually serve as regional chief executive officer.

“Debbie has passionately served our organization and our community every day for decades,” stated UnityPoint Health’s Central Illinois Board of Directors chair Dennis Triggs. “Always mission-driven, she has been a true champion for patients and families and an extraordinary leader to our physicians, nurses and team members.”

Following the 2011 integration of Methodist with Midwest-based UnityPoint Health, one of the nation’s largest non-profit, nondenominational integrated health systems, Simon led the expansion further into central Illinois. Methodist affiliated with Proctor Hospital in 2013 and Pekin Hospital in 2017, increasing access to UnityPoint Health services and expanding physician clinics throughout the region. Under her leadership, Methodist College has grown to more than 600 students pursuing certificate, baccalaureate and graduate degrees.

“Debbie will long be remembered for the legacy of health care progress she leaves in Peoria and its surrounding communities,” said Kevin Vermeer, president and chief executive officer of UnityPoint Health. “She was instrumental in leading the regional affiliation with UnityPoint Health and has since fostered continuous growth and development to ensure quality care for the people and families of central Illinois.”

Replacing Simon will be Dr. Keith Knepp, who is currently serving as president of UnityPoint Health’s hospitals and clinics in Peoria. Like Simon, he has spent his career with the organization and has held a number of leadership positions over the last decade, including chief medical informatics officer and chief operating officer.

“Having been here as long as I have, I can hit the ground running,” said Knepp. “In our local region, some of the partnerships we have formed are still pretty young, and I have the opportunity to bring all those entities together and continue the work that Debbie has begun. She has gotten us off to a great start, and I want to build on that.”

Having grown up in Eureka, Knepp has strong local connections. He practiced medicine in Eureka for seven years after he finished his medical training. Though he had always planned to be a doctor, he was given opportunities to grow within the Methodist Hospital, then UnityPoint Health, systems. He has been president since 2017.

Knepp will assume the role of chief executive officer on April 1 and work with Simon on the transition of leadership and other strategic initiatives until she officially retires on June 30. After that, Simon plans to take a deep breath.

“My husband is worried that I’m going to try to fill every minute of my day, but first I’m going to take a good deep breath. Then I will pursue some of the things I’ve had an interest in,” she said.

Over the years Simon has served on several local boards, including the Peoria and Pekin Chambers of Commerce, National Council of Advisors for Bradley University’s Foster College of Business, GPEDC, Wildlife Prairie Park and Bradley University.

“And then maybe I’ll do some things I’ve never done before, like executive coaching,” she said. “I’ve seen the challenge of leadership, and I have seen the challenges of women in leadership. So I plan to mix fun and work.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or Follow her on, and subscribe to her on