'It was out of strength': Bellin, Gundersen Health CEOs discuss proposed merger

Green Bay, Wis-based Bellin Health and La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health are set to complete a merger that would create an 11-hospital system across four states.

Chris Woleske, president and CEO of Bellin Health, and Scott Rathgaber, MD, CEO of Gundersen Health, spoke to Becker's about the merger in the works, their motivations for joining forces and how operations may change practically.  

They told Becker's the conversation about the merger came about naturally, as the two were friends and partners across various organizations, including both holding membership at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Both leaders had admired the other's organizations from a distance, and around 15 months ago they decided to pursue a unified system.

"We had naturally been talking and we said, 'Well, geez, the world's changing and, and we want to make sure that we are here for our communities for the next 100 years because each of us have been here for 100,'" Dr. Rathgaber said. "So maybe we should start having some conversations about how we can do that, how we can serve our patients and our communities better together than apart. It wasn't out of desperation; it was out of strength."

"That's where the enhancement is and where we'll be able to do more for our communities because of our ability to coinvest and our ability to learn from each other," Ms. Woleske said.

The pair emphasized how both systems wanted to enter the deal on equal footing. In regards to the leadership team, Dr. Rathgaber will serve as CEO of the consolidated system and Ms. Woleske will serve as executive vice president and regional president of the Bellin geography.

The merger will create a system with a combined revenue of $2.35 billion with a footprint across four states. When complete, the system will have 11 hospitals, more than 100 clinics and more than 14,000 employees. And given the two systems' distinct geographies, the merger will not involve much consolidation.

"From an operations standpoint, it's not a matter of merging those things together. So we really can work in our geographies and continue the great care that we provide currently, and that there won't be a huge push to move those two together because the distances just don't make it very viable," Dr. Rathgaber said.

They will start consolidating back-office teams, such as IT departments, and look to scale their respective financials as well as share technology and investments. The merger was filed under the name Bellin Gundersen; both leaders said their respective brands are strong but did not rule out rebranding.

"Is there a better way to synchronize and put us together while keeping those legacy names?  So I think we're going to be very thoughtful and get some help to do that, so I don't anticipate that the long-term name will be that," Dr. Rathgaber said. "Someone in my organization did come up with a name they thought we should consider, which was Gunderbelly, but I'm not sure that's gonna fly."

The deal awaits Federal Trade Commission approval.

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