MeritCare plans on 2010 expansion

FARGO -- MeritCare is embarking upon the new year with a list of resolutions including goals to expand and improve access to medical services. Newly merged with Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., MeritCare executives are laying out their...

MeritCare ER desk bustles with activity
The MeritCare emergency room desk bustles with activity on a typical work day. (David Samson/The Forum)

FARGO -- MeritCare is embarking upon the new year with a list of resolutions including goals to expand and improve access to medical services.

Newly merged with Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., MeritCare executives are laying out their recommendations for a new strategic plan that will be submitted in June.

MeritCare's financial picture, which darkened with operating losses over the past two years, including layoffs in 2008, now appears brighter following cost-saving measures.

"As the economy recovers, MeritCare's operations have improved," said Jeff Sandene, MeritCare's chief financial officer. "We are hiring staff, implementing our capital plans, and anticipate meeting our fiscal year operating margin of 2.5 percent at June 30, 2010."

One area under active study is how MeritCare can improve access to health care in rural areas, where recruiting physicians can be a steep challenge.


Sanford Health & MeritCare, with a coverage area of 130,000 square miles encompassing parts of five states, is believed to be the largest nonprofit rural health provider in the nation.

Now, with combined resources, the health system is better able to extend services to rural areas, including new locations, said Doug Vang, president of MeritCare Health Network.

"It's really to bring new resources to bear and that's across the board," he said.

MeritCare recently announced it has a management agreement with the community hospital in Wheaton, Minn. Similar agreements have been in place for several other rural hospitals.

More affiliations with rural hospitals are likely, Vang said.

"It's really about community health care integration," he said. Besides management expertise, MeritCare can provide access to specialized health care.

Talks involving possible affiliation with rural providers are widespread, Vang said, including areas not part of MeritCare's traditional service area, such as north-central North Dakota.

"We're looking at close to 50, in the 40 or 50 range," he said, referring to rural hospitals.


Similarly, Dr. Bruce Pitts, president of MeritCare Clinic, said the year ahead will be one of trying to improve access to both primary and specialty medical services.

MeritCare will be recruiting physicians "pretty much across the board," but especially looking in the areas of cardiology, surgery and neurology, Pitts said.

In certain areas, he said, including gastroenterology and neurology, the clinic wants to increase the number of physicians to decrease waiting times.

Also, both the hospital and clinic continue a study of health facilities, including how best to expand space for the emergency room and cancer center.

Another major initiative involves the installation of a new electronic medical records system, which will cost about $10 million to $15 million a year over five years, said Craig Hewitt, MeritCare's chief information officer.

The new system will allow patients to access "appropriate medical information," as well as schedule appointments online, he said.

Also, the new system will ease the sharing of electronic medical information, allowing better coordination of care and eliminating unnecessary costs, including test duplication, Hewitt said.

Dennis Millirons, recently named president of MeritCare Medical Center, said children's health services also will be expanded.


"We need to grow that program in terms of some of the specialties," he said.

Orthopedics and sports medicine is another area slated for bolstering, Millirons said.

Meanwhile, the process of meshing cultures and systems with Sanford is already well along.

"We have a consolidated finance staff already," he said.

Even as strategic plans are being put together for a possible new health complex at MeritCare's undeveloped Agassiz Crossing location, at 45th Street south of Interstate 94, there is an understanding that its downtown campus will remain strong, Millirons said.

"We'll always have a base here downtown," he said.

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