SSM Health announced Thursday it has entered exclusive discussions with University of Missouri Health Care to potentially transfer ownership of St. Mary’s hospitals in Mexico and Jefferson City, which will include outpatient, home care, hospice and medical group locations throughout the region.

The discussions are expected to take several months, and terms of the transaction are still being finalized.

"With the announcement today of the decision by SSM Health to enter into negotiations with the University of Missouri system to sell the only two remaining Catholic hospitals in the Diocese of Jefferson City, we are witnessing the end of a long chapter of Catholic hospitals in our community,” Bishop Shawn McKnight said in a statement.

SSM Health is also in exclusive discussions with Mosaic Life Care in St. Joseph to transfer ownership of SSM Health St. Francis Hospital-Maryville.

Last year, SSM Health’s board of directors began evaluating multiple options to pursue the long-term sustainability in these facilities, according to an SSM statement.

“The health care industry has shifted dramatically over the past several years,” said Laura S. Kaiser, FACHE, President/CEO of SSM Health. “In order to provide safe, high-quality health care services that are convenient and affordable, health systems must integrate all points of service across the entire continuum of care. Given the close proximity of MU Health Care and Mosaic Life Care’s existing services, we feel this transition of ownership will best serve the people of Jefferson City, Mexico, Maryville and surrounding communities.”

The University of Missouri Health Care includes five hospitals in Columbia and more than 50 outpatient clinics. It is one of only two tier-one safety net health systems in Missouri.

“We share SSM Health’s commitment to improve the health of our communities through exceptional clinical care and service, and look forward to reaching an agreement that enables us to expand our presence in Jefferson City, Mexico, and beyond,” said Jonathan Curtright, CEO of MU Health Care. "As an academic health system, we will be able to offer these communities improved access to our comprehensive integrated health care services that include the latest treatments and leading-edge research available. It will also create new opportunities to train more physicians, nurses and other health professionals to care for patients throughout the state – especially those in underserved rural areas.”

SSM Health is a Catholic not-for-profit integrated care delivery network with 40,000 employees in the system’s 24 hospitals throughout the Midwest. It was founded by five German nuns who cared for soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War and immigrated to the U.S. in pursuit of religious freedom and service. They reached St. Louis on Nov. 16, 1872, with just five dollars between them, according to SSM Health.

St. Louis was in the midst of a severe smallpox epidemic, and the nuns became known as the "Smallpox Sisters," as they begged in the streets for money and medicine to help treat the sick. Five years after entering the U.S., the sisters borrowed $16,000, to open St. Mary's Infirmary.

The bishop said he intends to collaborate with health care professionals and local officials to ensure Catholics and other people working in health care can continue to provide care according to the values of the faith.

"This time of transition offers us the opportunity to thank God for all the good that has been accomplished by the founding sisters and their collaborators over the years, and to ask for his guidance in continuing this work into the future," McKnight said.