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Sanford Health helps charitable causes in Upper Midwest

Sanford donations

FARGO - Sanford Health recently donated $81,390 to the Red River Regional Dispatch Center so it can more quickly dispatch ambulances to medical emergencies.

"It's going to improve efficiency, effectiveness and speed of dispatching medical calls," said Byron Sieber, the center's director, who noted dispatchers fielded almost 14,000 ambulance runs last year.

"It's a huge amount for us," Mary Phillippi, the assistant dispatch director, said of Sanford's gift. "It may be just a drop in their bucket."

The gift, to pick up the for a new ambulance dispatch software system, is just one example of the millions of dollars that Sanford Health, the region's medical behemoth, bestows upon a wide variety of charitable causes in its sprawling Midwestern service area and beyond.

During its 2010 budget reporting year, the most recent for which comprehensive figures are publicly available, Sanford Health donated more than $11.1 million to almost 90 not-for-profit groups.

The program to invest heavily in charitable causes comes from Sanford Health's chief executive, Kelby Krabbenhoft.

"Kelby has always been very intentional about giving back to the community," said Mike Begeman, Sanford's chief of staff.

The scope of Sanford's charitable donations is vast and varied, with contributions to health organizations, schools, community development and civic organizations.

Topping Sanford's 2010 list of donations, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service:

- A $4 million contribution to the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., now called the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.

The institute has major research programs in cancer, degenerative nervous system disorders and diabetes, as well as infectious, inflammatory and childhood diseases.

- A gift of $3 million to the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, part of Sanford's ongoing support of the medical school, including its teaching campus at Sanford's medical center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

- The University of North Dakota School of Medicine received $600,000 to support an endowed faculty position, yet to be filled, heading the medical school's neurology department.

- A contribution of $448,890 to Augustana College in Sioux Falls.

Geographically, the largest share of the donations - totaling $5.5 million - in 2010 were to organizations based in South Dakota, where Sanford Health originated in Sioux Falls.

Sanford merged with Fargo-based MeritCare in November 2009 in a partnership that basically doubled the size of the health system, with current annual gross revenues of $2.7 billion.

Organizations based in North Dakota received $886,528 in 2010, while Sanford gave Minnesota-based charities $348,883.

In the years since the merger, Sanford's contributions to its northern and southern service areas are more comparable, a Sanford representative said.

"We give where the need is greatest," Sanford spokesman Darren Huber said. "This varies financially and geographically from year to year. Sanford has long recognized that reaching beyond its facilities is essential to the well-being of a community."

Sanford's goal, he said, is to strengthen the communities and enhance the quality of life in its service areas by targeting contributions to programs and activities that promote health and wellness, support education through academic and athletic endeavors, and economic development.

All of the money for Sanford's charitable giving program to outside groups originates from its health-care operations, and does not come from its benefactors, most notably T. Denny Sanford, who has given almost $700 million to his namesake health system.

Given the spiraling cost of health care, some might prefer to see the investments remain within Sanford.

Three years ago, for instance, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota reduced its charitable giving program after the health insurer was criticized by the state insurance regulator for its spending practices.

Now North Dakota Blue Cross Blue Shield limits its charitable contributions to a maximum of $100,000 a year, with half of that sum going to United Way of Cass Clay, an organization also supported by Sanford, which contributed $90,000 in 2010.

Separately, Blue Cross Blue Shield has a grant program, capped at $375,000 a year, to help rural health organizations upgrade telemedicine and other information technology projects to improve health delivery.

Paul von Ebers, who took over as top executive of the North Dakota Blues in the aftermath of the spending audit, had little to say about the magnitude of Sanford's giving.

"I can't really comment on the dollars," von Ebers said, though added that some of the contributions probably are intended to complement its health initiatives, including sports medicine.

Sanford has pledged $10 million over 10 years toward a $32 million Sanford Health Athletic Complex at North Dakota State University, and $2 million over 10 years for an events center in Bemidji, Minn.

"I can't comment on what their business value is," von Ebers said. With its giving program, Blue Cross Blue Shield strives to improve health and wellness.

"We think that's good for our members," he added. "We presume Sanford's trying to do the same thing."

Recipients of Sanford's donations, meanwhile, expressed gratitude and said the money helps it accomplish their missions.

"Their gift has been a huge, huge part of our efforts to get this started," said Gene Taylor, NDSU's athletic director. "What they've brought to our community has just been phenomenal, and I think has been nothing but positive."

Dr. Mary Nettleman, dean of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, said the program is the recipient of "generous and ongoing" support from Sanford Health. It received more than $3 million in 2010 alone.

"The support is broad-based and extensive," she said in a statement. "It ranges from monetary support for key faculty positions, scholarships for students, and equipment to integrated teaching programs for medical students and residents.

"Also," she added, "Sanford Health provides expert mentoring of emerging physician-scientists by Sanford Research. It is an important and vibrant relationship."

Dr. Joshua Wynne, the dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, echoed his counterpart's remarks.

Sanford is giving UND $1.5 million over five years for an endowed faculty position in the name of Dr. Roger Gilbertson, a neuroradiologist who retired as MeritCare's chief executive around the time of the merger.

"It enables us to recruit from inside or outside the very best educators we can get," Wynne said of the Sanford-endowed head of the medical school's neurology department. "We're in the midst of recruiting for it."

Although some of Sanford's gifts are large and highly visible, most are more modest and largely out of public view, Begeman said.

"I know from the requests we get some people would like to see us give more," he said. "A lot of people do benefit from that."