If the proposed merger between Marshfield Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System goes through, the combined system could serve patients in more than 50 counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

That’s according to Gundersen CEO Scott Rathgaber, who says more than 2 million people live in the area the combined organizations would cover. These mostly rural residents are spread over thousands of miles, and he says they’re often underserved compared to urban inhabitants.

“That’s the challenge; how do we bring care to people as close to home as possible?” Rathgaber said yesterday during a conference call. “It’s what we’re committed to doing.”

Lacking broadband internet and easy interstate access puts these people at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing care. Rathgaber says the potential merger will “only strengthen our ability to bring services and concentrate resources” for these patients.

Altogether, the combined health system would have more than 2,000 care providers, 18,000 total employees, 13 hospitals and more than 100 clinics.

MCHS and Gundersen already have a similar mission, and they’ve both worked to improve access to care in rural areas with telemedicine and by training doctors and other clinicians to practice in these areas.

According to a joint release, the goal of the merger is to “collectively enhance the level of care” in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

“With our new reach, scale and resources, we would be able to do more than we’re doing now to lower the cost of care, enhance patient experience and deliver the best outcomes of any rural health system in the country,” said Susan Turney, CEO of MCHS.

She says “a core commitment” has been made between the two groups, but many details are still up in the air.

Rathgaber says the systems are working toward a solution but they’re trying not to put any specific constraints on the process.

According to Jeffrey Starck, a spokesman for MCHS, the process will take several months. Read the full story here.