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Opinion: Give fair hearing to Sanford- Fairview merger

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The criticism of a possible merger between Sanford Health of Sioux Falls and Fargo and Fairview Health Services of Minneapolis is more political posturing than honest consideration of the merits. The debate has degenerated into parochialism, name-calling and an attempt to characterize Sanford’s benefactor, Denny Sanford, as a predatory banker, which is little more than character assassination.

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It’s beneath Minnesota’s self-defined reputation for fairness. It has confirmed that sophisticated, cosmopolitan Minneapolis and St. Paul (as they like to see themselves) are as vulnerable to petty provincialism as any backwater Podunk. Maybe more so.

Attorney General Lori Swanson has emerged as leader of the provincials. Ever ready to exploit the politics of a situation, Swanson played the “Minnesota” card by suggesting Sanford was not worthy of being a health care player in the Gopher State’s version of a metropolis. And, in what has to be one of the most ridiculous attacks on Sanford, she suggested it was inappropriate for Sanford to donate money for athletic centers and naming rights on sports venues.

What a crock. Sanford has put money into centers that dovetail with its mission. Personal fitness and amateur sports are about healthy activity. Indeed, the nonprofit health company is in the mainstream of 21st-century thought on what it means to embrace a lifestyle that can lead to good health, protect against chronic conditions and thus reduce the costs of health care in the long term. If that means the Sanford name goes up on a fitness center, well, that’s a good thing.

In another telling hint of Swanson’s agenda, the Minnesota Hospital Association was not allowed to testify at her Sunday hearing, even after an official of the association asked to participate. The association had hoped to provide information about the health care economy and about consolidations and acquisitions. But given the attorney general’s stance on the proposed merger, it’s no surprise she was not interested in context and facts.

If all that was not enough to cause eyes to roll, a couple of Twin Cities legislators introduced a bill that would prohibit out-of-state interests from taking control of Minnesota’s hospitals. Bunker mentality in full flower, the legislation would send a message that investments in Minnesota’s health care sector are not welcome. How foolish is that?

Sanford is one of the most cost-effective, patient-centered health care companies in the nation. Its mergers with Fargo’s MeritCare and Bismarck’s Medcenter One have been successful. Both centers are or will be offering state-of-the-art medical services that previously were not available in either city. Investments in new buildings, technology and personnel are significant. Fairview executives would not be in preliminary merger talks if they did not believe Sanford could be a good partner.

If Minnesota’s political opportunists would act like grownups, a possible merger might get a fair hearing. The alternative is more of the Sunday sideshow that starred AG Swanson. — The Forum

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