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Sanford-Meritcare merger details emerge

FARGO, N.D. -- A merged Sanford-MeritCare would bring a "dowry" to this area that would include beefed-up medical research and expansions that could include a freestanding children's hospital and renovated cancer center.

That was the message from Kelby Krabbenhoft, chief executive of Sanford Health, and the proposed top executive of a merger between Fargo-based MeritCare and Sanford, headquartered in Sioux Falls.

Krabbenhoft and Dr. Roger Gilbertson, MeritCare's chief executive, reiterated assurances that they will strive to avoid layoffs from consolidation -- and again said they expected job growth instead.

If approved, Sanford-MeritCare would be a North Dakota corporation, with its headquarters planned for downtown Fargo, Krabbenhoft said.

He does not expect to fire any executives, and plans to have an equal number of executives in Sioux Falls and Fargo.

Gilbertson said the unfortunate perception has taken hold among some in the community that a merger will be detrimental for Fargo, but said the community will benefit, in terms of medical services and economic growth.

MeritCare and Sanford Health announced Thursday their intention to merge and disclosed that the joint organization would be incorporated in North Dakota.

If approved, the union of Sanford and MeritCare would create a vast regional health system serving 2 million people in five states, with corporate offices in Sioux Falls, S.D., where Sanford is based, and Fargo.

Top executives of both organizations and leaders of MeritCare's board sat down with The Forum on Thursday to discuss the deal. All stressed it would be a "merger of equals," and said the vision is one of enhancing medical services and revenues - not slashing costs and staff.

As part of this, Sanford Health hopes to extend its health insurance coverage to North Dakota, providing a new alternative for consumers, officials said.

For patients, the merger would mean that care now provided in Fargo-Moorhead will continue, although joining with Sanford Health ultimately will result in more sophisticated health services which have yet to be defined.

"The assumption is we're going to get bigger, we're going to get better, we're going to improve," Krabbenhoft said.

Although the two organizations are large - each has revenues exceeding $1 billion and more than 1 million clinical visits a year - both faced increasing challenges in providing specialized health services to areas lacking population density, Gilbertson said.

"Both of these organizations have the same dilemma," he said, explaining the forces bringing them together. Combined they would generate a patient base that can support highly sophisticated services.

"There is no question that the level of sophistication will increase at both facilities," Gilbertson said, adding that a medical review would be needed to determine those services.

Patrick Springer is a staff writer for the Forum of Fargo/Moorhead. The Forum and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.