PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — After years of on-and-off discussions, Rhode Island's two most dominant health care organizations announced on Tuesday that they have signed a merger agreement that includes a collaboration with Brown University's medical school to create an integrated statewide health care system.

The merger of Lifespan and Care New England will improve patient access and care, address racial and ethnic disparities in care, foster research and innovation, and help drive the state economy, among other benefits, the organizations said in a statement.

Brown's Warren Alpert Medical School has committed to providing a minimum of $125 million over five years in support of the endeavor. Brown will participate on the governing board of the merged system and play a key role in integrating medical education and research with clinical practice.

“What I am most excited about is the ability of our new, locally based, academic health system to compete at a national level, innovate, attract top talent, develop new scientific knowledge, improve the care we deliver and serve as an economic engine for Providence and the state,” Lifespan President and CEO Dr. Timothy Babineau said in a statement.

Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital group, operates Rhode Island, Miriam, Hasbro Children’s, Newport and Bradley hospitals. Care New England, the second largest, operates Women & Infants, Kent, and Butler hospitals. Combined they have almost 24,000 employees.

Merger discussions date to the 1990s, but were renewed again last summer, sparked by increased cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic. The nonprofits signed a merger letter of intent in September.

The proposed merger will require regulatory approval, including from the Rhode Island Department of Health and the state attorney general's office.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio expressed support for a merger, as long as services, care and employment are not negatively affected.

“We have seen in other regions the tremendous advantages that stem from a strong academic health system as an anchor tenant in a capital city," they said in a joint statement. “The legislature will be reviewing the details to ensure that patient care and the health care jobs are not adversely impacted by the merger.”