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Mike Nowatzki, Published September 11 2009

Anti-merger group ends fight

Members of a citizens group that urged Fargo-based MeritCare to slow down its proposed merger with Sanford Health have tossed in the towel after MeritCare’s board of trustees refused to meet with them, a group leader said Thursday.

“We’re very disappointed,” said former North Dakota first lady Jane Sinner, who led the Citizens for MeritCare group with former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness.

“We think it’s going to be a very bad deal for MeritCare and for the people of the whole region, but we can’t do anything about it,” she added.

MeritCare board Chairwoman Ellen Earle-Chaffee said the two health systems remain on track to have a definitive merger agreement in place by Oct. 1.

“My expectation is that the vote will come to the board quite soon,” she said.

Sinner said her group met with a representative from the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, which must approve mergers of nonprofit corporations in the state, but found no legal ground on which to challenge the merger.

The attorney general’s office offered to hold a public hearing in Fargo on the merger, she said, but group members didn’t see the point because of the lack of public interest.

“The general public does not understand the ramifications of this,” she said.

The group’s primary concern is that the merger will consolidate administrative services and ultimately result in job losses for MeritCare, said Sinner, who like Furness is a former MeritCare trustee.

“We don’t want them to fail, but we have a lot of fear,” she said.

Officials from MeritCare and Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford have repeatedly said they expect to add jobs, not cut them.

Earle-Chaffee said she hasn’t heard from the citizens group in weeks and hasn’t received any other negative feedback about the merger.

People attending a recent public meeting in Valley City, N.D., expressed excitement over the opportunity for enhanced patient care, better access to specialty services and educational opportunities, she said.

If approved by both boards, the merger would take effect in early November, MeritCare spokesman Darren Huber said.

The merger talks became public on June 27, and on July 16 the two boards each approved a letter of intent for a “merger of equals.”

The attorney general’s office received the merger paperwork on Aug. 4 and has until Nov. 4 to consent, object or take no action on the merger, said Parrell Grossman, head of the office’s consumer protection and antitrust division.

Grossman declined to comment on whether the merger has raised red flags or speculate on whether the office will use the entire 90-day review period.

He said he’s received no official public comment other than a news release and position statement from the citizens group.

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Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528