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Citizens group calls on MeritCare to suspend merger talks

FARGO -- A citizens group on Monday called upon Fargo MeritCare to suspend its merger talks with Sanford Health, citing fears that local control and jobs could be lost if the deal goes ahead.

Recently formed Citizens for MeritCare, whose members include former trustees of the health organization, reiterated their earlier call to slow down merger talks, which became public on June 27.

Representatives of MeritCare and Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford have stressed the union would be a "merger of equals," with each organization having the same number of trustees. Boards of both health systems unanimously approved a letter of intent to merge.

Headquarters for the merged Sanford-MeritCare would be divided between Fargo and Sioux Falls, although the nonprofit health system would be incorporated in North Dakota.

"Dual or equal control does not equal local con-trol," the Citizens for MeritCare statement said. "The idea of two headquarters is very unrealistic, and incorporating in North Dakota does not mean the company will be 'headquartered' here permanently."

A merger likely would mean a consolidation of many administrative and support areas, including human resources, foundations, bookkeeping, information technology and records, the citizens group said.

"Combine those, and you could conservatively estimate hundreds of Fargo jobs lost or moving to a consolidated headquarters in Sioux Falls," the statement said, citing earlier mergers involving Banner Health and Bank of the West as examples.

Kelby Krabbenhoft, chief executive of Sanford, and Dr. Roger Gilbertson, MeritCare's chief executive, have repeatedly said they expect the merger will result in new health services and more jobs in both Fargo and Sioux Falls.

"We think the health service jobs probably would increase," said Bruce Furness, former Fargo mayor and a spokesman for the citizens group. But, he added, "We think the net would be a loss."

In response to the plea from the citizen's group, Gilbertson issued a brief statement saying members of the public, including Citizens for MeritCare, are invited to a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Fargo Public Library.

"We truly appreciate the interest this group is showing in the potential combination of Sanford and MeritCare," he said. "Community support is at the foundation of what has made MeritCare a strong health system."

He added: "We continue to have great confidence that the region's interests are well represented by our board of trustees."

Last week, the chief executives of MeritCare and Sanford said they hope the merger could be accomplished this year in time to offer its health plan beginning Jan. 1, when many employer groups enroll.

Citizens for MeritCare, whose members also include Jane Sinner, former North Dakota first lady, said merger talks should be suspended until MeritCare hires a chief executive to replace Gilbertson, who is retiring at the end of the year.

A new MeritCare CEO could carry out a strategic plan, which could include "cooperative or merger opportunities," the statement recommended. The group still hopes for a meeting with MeritCare trustees.

"Our group represents nearly a hundred years of service to MeritCare Hospital, now MeritCare Health System," Furness said. "Our opinion should have some weight."