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Published July 10, 2009, 12:00 AM

Civic, business leaders to give input on MeritCare merger

Group plans news conference today to voice concerns
An influential group of civic and business leaders is urging Fargo-based MeritCare to seek greater public input and proceed with caution in exploring a possible merger with Sanford Health.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

An influential group of civic and business leaders is urging Fargo-based MeritCare to seek greater public input and proceed with caution in exploring a possible merger with Sanford Health.

Citizens for MeritCare, led by former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness and Jane Sinner, former North Dakota first lady, has scheduled a news conference this morning to voice apprehensions about a possible merger.

“Basically we have some concerns we wanted to articulate or make known,” Furness said Thursday. “We’re not picking a fight with anybody. We want to work with the board,” he added, referring to MeritCare’s 18-member board of trustees.

Meanwhile, in an internal communication sent Thursday night, MeritCare’s top executive reassured physicians and others that any letter of intent toward a merger is nonbinding.

If finally approved by the boards of both health systems, the earliest a merger transaction could take effect would be in the fall, Dr. Roger Gilbertson, MeritCare’s president and CEO, said in a message obtained by The Forum.

The two health systems acknowledged on June 17 that they are in ongoing negotiations involving a merger, which reportedly evolved out of talks that began when MeritCare evacuated some patients to Sanford, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., during the spring flood.

Members of the citizens group say it appears the merger talks are on a fast track.

“We are concerned that it’s happening quickly,” Furness said. “We want to address our concerns about that.”

MeritCare executives and board members will be asked to “take their time” in exploring the merger of the Red River Valley’s dominant medical center, he said.

“We welcome the Citizens for MeritCare Committee and their passion for MeritCare’s future,” MeritCare spokesman Darren Huber said in a statement Thursday.

“Having two previous board members lead this effort” – a reference to Furness and Sinner – “is evidence of the ongoing commitment current and past board members have for MeritCare and the communities we serve,” Huber added. “We look forward to presenting the merit of whatever decision the board endorses.”

MeritCare has declined The Forum’s requests to disclose its board meeting times or allow a reporter to attend the meetings, saying it is not required to do so by law. Huber said the organization also is bound by a confidentiality agreement it signed with Sanford.

Earlier talks established informally that a merged organization would be called Sanford MeritCare, and the North Dakota system took steps this week to secure the Internet domain name SanfordMeritCare.

org, Internet Registries show. MeritCare Health System registered the domain name on Monday, according to Whois.Net.

Sanford, which has 23 hospitals, last year posted revenues of $1.8 billion, compared to $819 million for MeritCare.

Wayne Gadberry, a trucking executive in Fargo and immediate past president of MeritCare’s board, said people should have faith that volunteer trustees will do their homework and act in the organization’s best interest.

“I think people are kind of going off half-cocked until they really know what’s going on,” he said.

Some Fargo-Moorhead business leaders have quietly expressed worries that a merger could result in heavy layoffs in Fargo, a concern Gadberry said is unwarranted.

No cuts would be made in health-delivery areas, which must be located to serve the area’s growing population, he said, adding he is basing his conclusions on his past experience with the board.

“We’ve got to serve the geographical area and the population,” Gadberry said. “People aren’t going to be going to Sioux Falls to have their babies,” or to have heart surgery or cancer treatment, he said, offering a few examples. “Those things aren’t going to change as far as I know.”

Worries about layoffs are misplaced, Gadberry said. The key question residents must be asking is what’s best for maintaining high-quality health services in an economic environment that is demanding increased efficiencies.

He added that a merged organization perhaps could offer specialized services that neither health system can provide alone.

“You’ve got to be able to have enough critical mass to provide services,” Gadberry said. “That’s the bottom line.”

MeritCare opens new sleep, dialysis center

Fargo MeritCare will conduct an open house today for a new center that will house its kidney dialysis and sleep center services.

The 2801 Medical Building at 2801 S. University Drive will host the open house from 1 to 3 p.m., with a ribbon- cutting scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

The new facility will mean greater privacy and more convenient scheduling for dialysis patients, with up to 48 stations, compared to the 28 chairs previously available.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522