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As a family physician who has had the privilege of serving patients in Bemidji for 33 years, I am thrilled about what the proposed merger between Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services would mean for people and communities across Minnesota. The combined system would strengthen Minnesota's reputation for world-class health care and better meet the needs of all our neighbors — in urban and rural areas alike.

I can speak from a personal level. In 2011, Sanford Health merged with North Country Health Services in Bemidji. Since then, Sanford has invested well over $100 million to increase access to specialty care, including expansions in behavioral health, cardiology, oncology, orthopedics, OB-GYN, surgery and pulmonology.

The expansion of cardiology care in Bemidji has been lifesaving. In 2013, Sanford opened the region's only heart and vascular center. People were dying in our community because time is critical to salvage a heart muscle during a heart attack. Without heart catheterization capabilities available locally, patients had to be transported to the Twin Cities or Fargo-Moorhead. We were only able to develop these services for our patients because of the merger.

For patients living with cancer in our region, having access to comprehensive care close to home has been life-changing. Before the merger, patients had to travel at least five hours round-trip to Fargo multiple days a week for infusions or radiation. Today, the Sanford Joe Lueken Cancer Center, which opened in 2018, is a center of excellence for advanced cancer care in northern Minnesota.

The Bemidji merger has been win-win for patients and providers. I will admit that initially clinicians had questions about what it would mean: Would we have choices about what care we delivered to our patients in Bemidji? We have not only retained autonomy but now have the added benefit of being part of a larger organization with access to more resources for patients. The commitments kept over the years are a testament.

The merger has enabled us to bring innovative approaches to care to our community. This fall, Sanford Bemidji celebrated a major milestone with the opening of a $6.9 million behavioral health crisis center, built in partnership with Beltrami County and the state of Minnesota. It is the first center in northwest Minnesota to feature innovative emergency psychiatric assessment and healing (EmPath) units for adults, children and families. This facility will ensure that community members in need of mental health care and services can get help in time to make a difference.

My goal has always been to be a rural family physician. I am grateful to be part of a high-performing, nationally recognized integrated health system that enables me to practice state-of-the-art medicine in a small town. We have immediate access to specialists and hospitalists by phone or by video visit in the Sanford network. A combination with Fairview would build on this by giving patients here even greater access to highly specialized, cutting-edge medicine.

I also cannot overstate what the proposed merger between Sanford and Fairview would mean for recruiting top-tier clinicians to our state. In Bemidji, before the merger, we struggled to find radiologists and physicians across many specialties. Since 2011, we've been able to recruit exceptional doctors and advanced practice providers — and more of them. Our medical staff has more than doubled, which means we can provide more services to our patients.

Sanford also has a deep commitment to providing care beyond our clinics and hospitals and reducing health disparities. It's a promise to our communities I know we share with Fairview. We recognize that access to housing, food and transportation impact health. In Bemidji, Sanford has partnered with our community to provide residents in underserved neighborhoods rides to medical appointments, delivered essential supplies like diapers and feminine products and hosted vaccine clinics.

Just like Fairview, Sanford's mission as a nonprofit organization is to reinvest in the care of patients and community. The privilege of serving those who rely on us in their time of greatest need is a responsibility we do not take for granted. It has never mattered to our patients where our headquarters are located.

Sanford's legacy in Bemidji should bring reassurance that a new combined system with Sanford and Fairview will secure a healthier future for all Minnesotans.

David Wilcox is the vice president medical officer for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota and a practicing family medicine physician in Bemidji.