NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - St. Peter's University Hospital is the latest health care center to announce it is considering a merger with another hospital or agency.

Leslie Hirsch, interim CEO and president of St. Peter's Healthcare System - the parent company of the hospital - said the hospital this month began a process of identifying potential partners. Hirsch said no timeline was set for the hospital to decide when or if it will decide to enter a merger.

He noted that hospitals in New Jersey in the past several years have seen "unprecedented consolidation," creating large health care systems with significant economic advantages.

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St. Peter's is the only independently operated hospital in Middlesex County.

It sits just blocks away from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, which is now part of the larger RWJBarnabas system. With the larger size and ability to treat more patients, these systems can negotiate payment deals with insurance companies.

"We have to be good stewards in planning for St. Peter's," Hirsch said. He said the hospital issued a request for proposal from a potential partnership. A partner is being sought, Hirsch said, that would enable St. Peter's to "retain its Catholic mission and identity" while still remain competitive in the healthcare industry.

Hirsch said the hospital board of governors, in collaboration of with the Rev. James Checchio, bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, has been studying the strategic position of the hospital for the past year.

St. Peter's is a 478-bed acute care teaching hospital and state-designed children's hospital and regional prenatal care center. The healthcare system includes the Saint Peter's Foundation, which is the fund-raising arm of the hospital, Saint Peter's Health and Management Services Corp. which oversees outpatient facilities, and Saint Peter's Physician Associates, a network of primary and specialty care physician practices.