Our leadership team

Sharp Health Plan is led by people who live, work, and play in San Diego. Just like you.

We believe that members deserve a trusted health care partner and advocate. That’s why Sharp Health Plan's leadership team is committed to providing the best healthcare experience for you. Every day, they use their deep knowledge in healthcare administration and a dedication to helping the San Diego community to make a positive difference.



Melissa Hayden Cook

President and Chief Executive Officer

Melissa Hayden Cook has more than 20 years of experience in the health care industry, starting her career at Sharp HealthCare as senior vice president of marketing. Since joining the Sharp family, she has held a seat on Sharp Health Plan’s board of directors and has been the president and CEO of Sharp Health Plan since 2005.

A native San Diegan and University of San Diego graduate, Melissa is passionate about making a difference in San Diego’s health care landscape. She has led a pronounced, organization-wide effort to make high-quality health care accessible to San Diegans. In addition, Melissa sits on the boards of numerous nonprofit health-related organizations, and has been recognized for her work in the health care industry.

Rita Datko

Rita Datko

Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Rita Datko joined Sharp Health Plan as vice president and CFO in June 2005, after serving eight years as treasurer and director of financial services for Sharp HealthCare. With nearly 20 years of experience in the health care industry, Rita provides leadership for the overall financial management and business operations of Sharp Health Plan. She also oversees the technological infrastructure related to the Sharp Health Plan core administration system, file management and information technology support.

Rita shares Sharp Health Plan’s commitment to the Girl Scouts. In addition to being an active volunteer for more than 20 years, Rita also holds the position of treasurer on the San Diego-Imperial Council’s Board of Directors. She graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She is a certified public accountant, a Life Management Institute fellow and a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In 2017, Rita also received the San Diego Business Journal CFO of the Year Award.



Leslie Pels-Beck

Vice President and Chief Operations Officer

Leslie Pels-Beck joined Sharp Health Plan as manager of Customer Service in 1999, after several years in the health care industry. She moved into the role of COO in 2001 and was named vice president in 2005. Leslie is responsible for customer service, appeals and grievances, business operations, compliance, and legislative and regulatory affairs.

Leslie graduated from San Diego State University at the top of her class with a Master of Public Health degree. She worked as a program manager and teacher for the developmentally disabled at Vista Hill Foundation, administrative analyst for the County of San Diego Department of Health Services, and program manager and quality director for Managed Care Solutions. Leslie has served the community on the boards of the Community Health Improvement Partners, the Arc of San Diego Foundation and the Developmental Services Continuum.


Michael Byrd

Michael Byrd

Vice President and Chief Business Development Officer

Before joining Sharp Health Plan, Michael was vice president of sales strategy for American Specialty Health, where he helped grow and develop two national sales teams. Michael also helped build and launch American Specialty Health’s Healthyroads wellness program, which under his leadership, grew to over half a million covered lives in three years.

Early in his career, Michael helped build one of the first telephone-based tobacco cessation programs in the country for the State of California through UC San Diego’s School of Medicine. He has co-authored research articles published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Journal of Preventive Medicine.


Dr. Cary Shames

Dr. Cary Shames

Vice President and Chief Medical Officer

Dr. Cary Shames joined Sharp Health Plan as vice president and chief medical officer in 2015. For four years, Dr. Shames served as the medical director of the Americas for ResMed Corporation. He was responsible for leading the health care economic strategies team in development and implementation of partnerships with health plans, accountable care organizations and integrated delivery systems, government agencies, providers and self-funded employers.

Prior to ResMed, Dr. Shames held several key executive and medical director positions in other managed health care organizations, including Anthem/Wellpoint, PacifiCare Health Systems and Aetna. In addition, he holds an academic appointment at the University of Colorado School Of Medicine.

"Our focus is always on exceeding our members’ health care, coverage and service needs at prices they can afford; they’re at the center of everything we do. This approach has consistently earned us national recognition for high-quality coverage and enables us to deliver the personalized ‘Sharp Experience’ that San Diegans have grown to expect from Sharp."

- Melissa Hayden Cook, President & CEO, Sharp Health Plan

Sharp Direct Advantage is offered by Sharp Health Plan. Sharp Health Plan is an HMO with a Medicare contract. Enrollment with Sharp Health Plan depends on contract renewal. Read the full disclaimer.

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Page Last Updated: 4/17/2024
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