DES MOINES, Iowa — UnityPoint Health, the medical organization that operates three Peoria-area hospitals, announced plans to merge with a South Dakota-based health system.

UnityPoint, based in Des Moines, and Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, announced Friday that they have signed "a letter of intent to explore joining their ... brands," according to a news release.

UnityPoint is among the biggest employers in the Peoria area, operating the Methodist, Proctor and Pekin hospitals and a bevy of freestanding clinics.

Pending regulatory reviews, the companies said they hoped to have the merger completed by the end of this year.

If it goes forward, the new company would be among the 15 largest not-for-profit health systems in the U.S., and would operate in 26 states and nine countries.

"The decision follows considerable exploration between leadership teams from each organization," the news release stated. "The two organizations will build on their strengths in clinical care, research, innovation and education to deliver greater health outcomes and value in communities in the Midwest and around the world."

UnityPoint CEO Kevin Vermeer said discussions have been focused.

“We are approaching our discussions very purposefully, with a clear and common vision for success. First and foremost, our focus is on people," he stated in the release. "Working together, we will find new ways to broaden access to care — beyond the traditional settings — and take greater responsibility for the health of the populations we serve.”

Under the plans agreed to thus far, Sanford's president and CEO, Kelby Krabbenhoft, would become president and CEO of the new organization. UnityPoint's Vermeer would be a senior executive vice president of the combined system.

However, "both organizations would continue to operate their respective fully-integrated medical groups and maintain longstanding relationships with independent physicians, hospitals and other health care partners," the release stated.

Earlier this week, UnityPoint announced pending plans to end its labor-and-delivery services in Pekin and consolidate all birthing operations at Methodist.

Methodist has been affiliated with UnityPoint since 2011; Proctor since 2013; and Pekin since 2017. UnityPoint also operates several medical facilities across the region which have been rebranded under its logo since the three local hospitals came under its umbrella.