BENSON - Negotiations are underway to develop an affiliation between Swift County Benson Health Services and CentraCare Health of St. Cloud or Carris Health of Willmar.

The board of directors for SCBHS voted unanimously on May 23 to pursue an affiliation with one of the larger health care systems, according to Ashlie Bradley, director of human relations and business development with SCBHS.

The vote followed months of discussions among board members, along with two community forums.

"We want to be sure health care stays local and be able to provide the services that make sense to provide in Benson,'' said Bradley of the decision to pursue an affiliation. "(We want) to make certain the patients are well cared for and cared for at home."

The structure of an affiliation is to be determined. Options include a lease arrangement or transfer of assets. City and county support is needed.

The goal is to have an affiliation in place at the start of the new year, according to Bradley.

SCBHS operates a hospital and clinic in Benson with 120 employees. It also has an independent and assisted care living facility with a memory care unit attached to the campus. Scandi Haven Village has 45 to 50 employees who are managed by Progressive Care.

The decision to pursue an affiliation with one of the health care systems in Willmar or St. Cloud recognizes the relationships that already exist. A majority of SCBHS patients currently use Carris Health or CentraCare when in need of advanced or specialized care not provided by SCBHS, Bradley pointed out.

SCBHS board chair Patty Schreck said board members feel there has been a very good working relationship with the larger systems, and appreciate the services and facilities they offer.

Bradley and Schreck said the proposal to affiliate with a larger system has been well received in Benson and the surrounding area. People have had questions about what it will mean, but have been supportive of the need to work with a larger system, they explained.

SCBHS has also been holding informational sessions with employees to keep them updated on the process.

Many rural hospitals are exploring affiliations with larger systems. Larger systems offer economies of scale, more leverage in dealing with payers and suppliers, and can help in recruiting providers.

Bradley said an affiliation will help SCBH build on its strengths. It's also hoped an affiliation can assist the local system with capital needs, including that of purchasing an electronic medical records system.

SCBHS enjoys high ratings in the quality of care it provides, said Bradley. She said the directors believe an affiliation with a larger system can help equip the local health care system to continue to provide the best care right at home. "Everything comes back to the patient," she said of what guided discussions by board members.