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Published November 18, 2010, 09:37 AM

Sanford to Merge with North Country Health Services

A Dakotas-based health care system that bills itself as the nation's largest not-for-profit rural health care provider has added a hospital in northern Minnesota.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A Dakotas-based health care system that bills itself as the nation's largest not-for-profit rural health care provider has added a hospital in northern Minnesota.

Officials with Sanford Health said Thursday they have signed a letter of intent to join with North Country Health Services of Bemidji, Minn., which has about 900 employees and serves an area with about 100,000 people. Sanford currently has a clinic in Bemidji.

The two systems are describing the move as a merger because North Country Health is community-owned and no money exchanged hands. Sanford said it plans to invest $75 million in facilities, recruitment and technology in the Bemidji area over the next 10 years, including an immediate $5 million gift to the North Country Health Services Foundation.

Sanford Health was formed last year by the merger of two health systems in North Dakota and South Dakota. It is headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fargo, N.D., and has more than 18,000 employees.

The company "is definitely in a growth mode," said Darren Huber, Sanford spokesman in Fargo.

"These independent hospital and clinic groups out there across the nation are looking for partners right now," Huber said. "It's a sign of the financial times; it's a sign of health care reform; it's the future of health care.

"If they're not going to join us, they're going to join someone else," he said.

Sanford Health serves 110 communities in eight states. It has 30 hospitals and more than 800 doctors in 70 specialty areas of medicine. It is the largest employer in North Dakota and South Dakota, company officials said.

Small hospitals in Mayville, N.D., and Wheaton, Minn., have recently joined with Sanford.

"You merge together for the benefit of keeping health care in your community," Huber said.

North Central Health opened in 1898. It receives about 25,000 emergency room visits and 5,500 hospital admissions per year. The campus also includes an outpatient rehab center.

The North Central Health hospital and Sanford clinic in Bemidji have worked together for many years, company officials said.

"Joining with Sanford in a fully integrated model of care is truly a natural progression of our long-standing relationship," North Country Health Systems CEO and president Paul Hanson said in a statement.

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