CHICAGO — University Hospitals, one of northeast Ohio's largest providers, plans to acquire Samaritan Regional Health System, the two providers announced March 5.

Samaritan, a 55-bed acute-care facility in Ashland County, has been looking to merge with a larger partner for a year, the systems said in a press release.

The pair signed a letter of intent last week, and hope to close the deal by the middle of 2015.

Hospitals, especially small stand-alone facilities like Samaritan, are merging with larger systems across the country as they grapple with weakness in the sector and an uncertain future tied to the new federal health care law.

"Our committee came to the conclusion that a relationship with University Hospitals would best meet our goals to secure and expand the clinical services provided here in Ashland County; compete in the rapidly changing world of health care; provide financial stability for the long term; and improve the quality of care at Samaritan," Samaritan CEO and President Danny Boggs said in a statement.

Samaritan would become UH's 16 hospitals, including UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland. The system also has 29 outpatient health centers throughout northeast Ohio. It has $3.5 billion of revenue.

Moody's Investors Service rates it A2 with a stable outlook, noting its position as a large system in the Cleveland area and good operating margins, among other factors. Its challenges include relatively high leverage and competition, notably from the prestigious Cleveland Clinic.

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