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MeritCare-Sanford merger meets skeptics

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FARGO - The merger of Fargo MeritCare and Sanford has often been compared to a marriage.

On Wednesday evening, it was time to present the proposed match of the two large health systems to the public for questions and answers.

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Once again, top executives for the two medical networks vowed that layoffs will not result from a merger and Fargo health services will not be shipped down Interstate 29 to Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford.

"It's an allegation and a fear that we are doing our best to take the air out of," Kelby Krabbenhoft, the president and chief executive officer of Sanford Health, told a packed community room at the Fargo Public Library. "It's just not part of the equation."

Dr. Roger Gilbertson, president and chief executive officer of MeritCare added: "If we were going to shrink, we would just shrink by ourselves."

In fact, the two argued that just the opposite would occur, repeating earlier predictions that health services in both Fargo and Sioux Falls will expand.

Still, the leaders encountered skepticism from some, including a MeritCare surgeon who questioned whether the union really would be a "merger of equals," since MeritCare last year went through layoffs and Sanford received a $400 million gift a couple of years ago.

Dr. Gary Kubalak, a general surgeon, also questioned the need for a major expansion at Agassiz Crossing in south Fargo, noting significant upgrades to the downtown medical center.

Later, noting that Gilbertson, who will retire as MeritCare's CEO at the end of the year, will remain as a consultant, Kubalak asked, "What is a merger consultant, and what does he get paid?"

Krabbenhoft replied that it "might be a reach (for all physicians) to immediately jump on board" and urged those who are skeptical to watch him and look at his track record, which involved significant expansions in Sioux Falls.

Using an analogy that it would be incomplete to measure him by the length of his legs and not by the size of his heart, Krabbenhoft said, "The truth of the matter is we come together on a patient basis."

As for Gilbertson's consulting role after he steps down as MeritCare CEO, Krabbenhoft said, "He's just following through on the end of his career. There's no new deal."

Gilbertson later explained that he will remain until his contract expires at the end of 2010, at the same salary, as provided in his contract.

Nobody spoke against the merger. Many of the questions concerned patient concerns about the care that would be available for their own illnesses.

In response to a complaint by Jim McKay that MeritCare had no permanent pulmonologists, Gilbertson acknowledged that had been a problem, but replied that a new pulmonologist is on board, and another has been hired.

One patient, Dale O. Anderson of Fargo, praised the proposed combination as a "merger of a new Mayo between Fargo and Sioux Falls." Anderson, who is battling the neurological disorder Huntington's disease, said his original neurologist had left MeritCare - to join Sanford.

The boards of trustees of the two health systems unanimously approved a letter of intent to pursue the merger July 16. Administrators, still in the "due diligence" review, hope to have a merger agreement by the end of September.

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