FARGO — The recent announcement that Sanford Health intends to enter a partnership with the city of Williston, N.D., for a new clinic and hospital reflects a focus from its new top executive to concentrate on growth in its core service territory.

Bill Gassen, who took over as Sanford’s CEO on Nov. 24, said the health system will keep its eye on growth opportunities in its traditional geographical service territory: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.

He outlined that philosophy — which contrasts with the expansive growth strategy of his predecessor — in an interview with Forum News Service soon after the Williston announcement was made. Sanford and the city expect to have an agreement by Aug. 31.

Gassen succeeded Kelby Krabbenhoft, who abruptly left amid controversy after he claimed he had recovered from COVID-19 and wouldn’t wear a mask, contradicting the advice of health experts.

A lawyer by training, Gassen’s earlier roles at Sanford included serving as a legal counsel and its chief of human resources.

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Soon after taking the helm, Gassen announced that a proposed merger with Intermountain Healthcare, based in Salt Lake City, was indefinitely suspended. If approved, under arrangements negotiated by Krabbenhoft, the corporate headquarters of the merged organization would have been in Salt Lake City.

Since that announcement, there have been no discussions, Gassen said. Sanford’s decision not to pursue the merger had nothing to do with Intermountain Healthcare, he said. Instead, Gassen wants to direct his efforts internally — on taking care of patients — as Sanford continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball in regards to fighting the pandemic,” which he called Sanford’s “No. 1 priority.”

Sanford will be looking to do the things that are necessary to care for patients in its current service area, Gassen said.

“You can see us use growth as a potential tool,” he said. “The end is not growth for Sanford Health. The end is to make sure we continue to advance health care.”

When appropriate, he said, growth can involve expansion into new services as well as serving or strengthening services in new areas near those already served.

Williston, which Sanford already serves, ties in with Sanford’s Bismarck hub, Gassen said.

“You’ll see more things like the partnership with the city of Williston,” he said. “You’re going to continue to see us invest further in the states we operate in today.”

The new clinic and hospital contemplated in the North Dakota city would be located in Williston Square, an 800-acre development on the site of the former Sloulin International Airport. Plans call for a civic center as well as new homes and apartments.

“We believe the city of Williston is a strategic community within the state of North Dakota,” an important center in the Oil Patch, Gassen said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to expand health care in that area.”

He called the city of Williston a “fantastic partner,” adding, “We’re excited for the opportunity to better serve that community.”

The pandemic has served as a catalyst for telehealth services, which have been embraced by providers, patients and payers, he said, and predicted it will be a growing platform for health care delivery in the future.

“I think that will be a significant game-changer as we go forward,” Gassen said.

Sanford was able to avoid layoffs or furloughs during the pandemic, which posed an unprecedented challenge for health care providers. The pandemic showcased Sanford’s ability to operate as a large, integrated health system that combines clinical care, hospitals and long-term care, Gassen said.

“It really demonstrated for us the importance of being a strategically operating company,” he said. “It allowed us, I think, to be as effective as we possibly could be.”

By avoiding layoffs, Sanford’s workforce already was in place when demand for service rebounded. “I believe that paid significant dividends for us,” he said.

Also, many employees were trained to take on new roles. Many clinic-based nurses, for example, helped out in hospitals.

“We upskilled thousands of employees,” Gassen said.

Jon Godfread, North Dakota's insurance commissioner, has said he hopes health care providers will use the expansion of telehealth services as an opportunity to create efficiencies that will reduce costs for consumers.

“I believe there’s a great opportunity for that,” Gassen said. Also, he added, expanded telehealth services will increase access for patients.