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Sanford, Bemidji hospital to merge

North Country Health Services in Bemidji and Sanford Health will sign a letter of intent today to begin the process of a merger. Monte Draper / Forum Communications Co.

Sanford Health and North Country Health Services in Bemidji, Minn., announced Thursday that they plan to merge early next year.

Most notably, the partnership will fully unite the Sanford Clinic in Bemidji with adjoining North Country Regional Hospital.

The merger, if completed as planned in a letter of intent, will be the largest addition to Sanford Health, with roots in Sioux Falls, S.D., since it merged a year ago with MeritCare Health System in Fargo.

North Country representatives said the merger will help provide better health care for a medical service area with a population of about 100,000 in northern Minnesota.

"From the standpoint of the community, it's a great day for us," said Jim Bensen, a member of North Country's board of trustees. "We're very excited about the potential of it."

Sanford has pledged to invest $75 million over the next 10 years in facilities, technology and recruiting. Much of that will be aimed at improving key specialty areas, such as cardiology, cancer treatment, orthopedics, women's services and neuroscience.

Besides expanded local access to specialty care, patients will benefit from a planned electronic medical records system, eliminating the need for scanning many paper records between the now-separate clinic and hospital.

North Country's decision to align with Sanford stemmed from a strategic planning effort that started a year ago. Sanford emerged in April as the clear choice to pursue as a merger partner, Bensen said.

One reason is that Sanford is heavily involved in medical research, which Bensen said helps patients by being on top of innovations in care.

"Joining with Sanford in a fully integrated model of care is truly a natural progression of our longstanding relationship," said Paul Hanson, chief executive of North Country, which has more than 900 employees.

The Bemidji medical center includes 80 acute hospital beds, 16 acute rehabilitation beds, 12 acute geriatric psychiatric beds, as well as 78 skilled-nursing- home beds and 120 assisted-living apartments.

North Country would be the largest hospital in the Sanford Health system outside Fargo and Sioux Falls.

Sanford Clinic Bemidji has 75 physicians and 550 employees - part of a system including 800 physicians and 18,000 employees in eight states.

"This is the perfect time to pursue ways we can work together to grow and improve our services in northern Minnesota," said Kelby Krabbenhoft, Sanford's chief executive.

The goal is to complete the merger in three to five months. Both organizations are engaged in a "due diligence" review, including legal and financial issues.