KANKAKEE — Officials with Kankakee-based Riverside Healthcare and Watseka-based Iroquois Memorial Hospital (IMH) have each signed a non-binding letter of intent to explore merging IMH into Riverside Healthcare.

The letter of intent gives both organizations the chance to work confidentially to explore the possible merger.

While no specific timeline for the merger was released, the due-diligence process and review by regulatory bodies could conclude by the first quarter of 2019.

"This process is just getting started," said Phil Kambic, president and chief executive officer of Riverside Healthcare, "but as we move forward, I anticipate this to be a very exciting and rewarding chapter for Riverside, IMH and the residents of Iroquois County.

"We are very excited about exploring what this could mean," Kambic added. "We have served the residents of Watseka and Iroquois County in various capacities for many years. This opportunity allows us to examine how we might shift that model and work with the dedicated team at Iroquois Memorial to find new and better ways to meet the healthcare needs of the community."

Tim Smith, president and chief executive officer of IMH, said the merger would give IMH "a partner to effectively advance our mission."

"Having had conversations over the years with Riverside about what the future of healthcare might look like in this community, we felt now was the right time to explore the merger," Smith said.

IMH opened in 1916 and has undergone numerous expansions. The hospital currently employs 450 staff and operates several satellite clinics.

Riverside, which opened its main hospital in Kankakee in 1964, employs 3,000 staff and began providing oncology care in Watseka in the early 1980s. In 2011, Riverside opened an outpatient facility in Watseka, which now provides immediate, primary and specialty care as well as chemotherapy and infusion services.