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Bismarck's Medcenter One in talks with Sanford

FARGO - Hospital executives from Sanford Health and Bismarck's Medcenter One are discussing a possible merger.

Representatives of the two regional health systems declined to be interviewed Monday but issued separate statements acknowledging that they are engaged in exploratory talks.

If a merger happened, the resulting health system of hospitals and clinics would transform the health care map in North Dakota.

Combining Sanford and Medcenter would result in a state service area extending from the Red River Valley in the east to central and western North Dakota, including clinic locations in Dickinson and Minot.

The hospitals run by Sanford and Medcenter comprise two of North Dakota's six major, tertiary-care hospitals. The others include Essentia Health in Fargo, Altru Health in Grand Forks, St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck and Trinity Health in Minot.

The service areas of Sanford and Medcenter have little overlap, except in James town, where both have clinics.

"Medcenter One is financially strong, and we are actively involved in defining our best strategic options going forward in a health care reform era that will challenge us with more demands for health care services and less reimbursement," Dr. Craig Lambrecht, Medcenter's president and CEO, said in a statement.

"Absolutely we are talking," said Andrew Richburg, an executive vice president at Sanford in Fargo. "The focus of discussions centers around our potential together and what is best for our patients and the communities we serve."

Richburg went on to say in his statement that the two organizations have a longstanding "collegial relationship and a history of partnership and collaboration."

Sanford fertility specialists see Medcenter patients at Medcenter, and the two are members in a health policy advocacy partnership in North Dakota called the Health Policy Consortium.

Medcenter One has 226 hospital beds, compared to about 586 licensed beds for Sanford in two Fargo campuses. If the two merged, it would be the biggest merger for Sanford since its Sioux Falls, S.D.,-based health system combined with Fargo-based MeritCare in 2009.

Jerry Jurena, president of the North Dakota Hospital Association, said some hospital administrators around the state have expressed interest in the possible merger.

The significance of any agreement could range from a network agreement involving certain services to a full-fledged merger, Jurena said.

"A network isn't that big of a deal," he said. "But a merger would be something else."