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PeaceHealth — which runs Longview's St. John Medical Center — announced Wednesday it will merge with Vancouver-based Southwest Washington Health System, creating a partnership officials say will enhance patient care and access across the region.

The "affiliation agreement" will merge all Peacehealth facilities with the hospitals and clinics owned by Southwest, including Southwest Medical Center, the region's largest not-for-profit health care provider. The Vancouver hospital will be renamed PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and all other Southwest properties and employees will transition into PeaceHealth operations.

"We welcome Southwest into the PeaceHealth family, as we expand the scope and quality of health care services in Southwest Washington communities," Alan Yordy, PeaceHealth's president and chief mission officer, said in a press release.

No clinics or services are expected to close in either Longview or Vancouver because of the merger, officials from both hospitals said. Southwest Washington Medical Center, with 450 hospital beds, is more than twice the size of St. John's 180-bed hospital.

"Nothing is closing and there are no jobs going away as a result of this," said Brien Lautman, PeaceHealth's system communications officer. "We really look at this as about growth and about serving all of Southwest Washington better."

However, PeaceHealth's corporate offices will relocate from Bellevue, Wash., to Vancouver in a Shared Services Center that will eventually employ 500 people. PeaceHealth employees from Eugene, Ore., also will move to Vancouver, as will a handful of Longview employees who work for the corporate system instead of the regional hospital.

The Longview jobs are likely in areas such as information technology and human resources, and officials believe most of the employees will commute from Longview, said St. John spokesman Randy Querin.

Most of the Shared Services Center transitions will start in mid 2012 and be completed by 2014. Likewise, transition to PeaceHealth payroll and employment will happen over time for Southwest employees, officials said.

The local management teams at both the Longview and Vancouver hospitals will remain in place, and money raised by each hospitals' foundations will be spent only in the communities where the money was raised.

The partnership was first suggested by Southwest officials in March. The two healthcare systems spent the next few months getting to know each other and examining options. Wednesday the official affiliation papers were signed, although the final merger won't be complete until state and federal regulators examine the deal for any anti-trust violations.

The hospitals have been working with regulators throughout the process, though, and don't expect any delays. It's possible the merger will be official by January, Lautman said.

Southwest looked into the partnership to help consolidate costs and allow for more money for expansion, said Kenneth Cole, Southwest's chief communications officer.

Increased medical competition in the region — Legacy Health opened its Salmon Creek Hospital in Vancouver in 2005 — played a factor but wasn't the only reason, Cole said. Both PeaceHealth and Southwest tried to block construction of the new hospital.

The possibility for group purchasing and lower costs to borrow for expansion were key factors, as were the uncertainty surrounding medical reimbursement and healthcare reform, Cole said.

Officials stressed, though, that the merger is expected to expand access to care in Southwest Washington.

For example, about 2,900 Cowlitz County patients are sent to Oregon each year for advanced care. With the partnership, those patients may be able to receive treatment closer to home in Vancouver, Cole said. In addition, both Longview and Vancouver hospitals and clinics hope to be able to expand access to patients and offer services not available now, Lautman said.

"For the residents of Longview-Kelso and our surrounding communities, this affiliation is about growth and opportunity," said Sy Johnson, chief executive officer and chief mission officer at St. John. "Together with Southwest, we can expand access to care and services, while maintaining our community leadership and focus."

PeaceHealth owns six hospitals and numerous medical clinics and facilities in Washington, Oregon and Southeast Alaska and has 11,500 employees. It was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, who came to Bellingham, Wash., in 1890 to establish a hospital for loggers, mill workers and fishermen. Systemwide, PeaceHealth has more than 900 hospital beds.

Southwest was the first hospital established in the Pacific Northwest, founded in 1858 by Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Southwest has two hospital campuses (Medical Center Campus and Memorial Health Center) and operates an extensive network of primary- and specialty-care clinics throughout Vancouver. It employs more than 3,7000 people.

Officials said the hospitals' shared not-for-profit status and religious mission made the merger a prefect fit.

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