The parent companies of the Columbia Hospital for Women Medical Center and the Washington Hospital Center are discussing a possible merger that some sources said might occur by this summer.

The discussions have been going on for close to two years and continue to be conducted in very preliminary, general terms, said Liz McAlister, director of planning and marketing for the Columbia Hospital for Women Foundation, and Ken Samet, assistant to the president of Washington Healthcare Corp.

"It would be very premature to talk about specifics," Samet said. "We want to continue to be a premier provider of health care service in the region, and are always interested in talking to other quality providers."

Columbia is talking to other health care institutions about possible partnerships, but has not yet decided whether or not to merge at all, McAlister said.

The match would fit well into both Washington Healthcare's ambitious expansion plans and Columbia's continuing goal of providing special care for women and newborns, the officials said.

Washington Healthcare Corp. operates three hospitals -- the Washington Hospital Center, the National Rehabilitation Hospital and the Capitol Hill Hospital. The nonprofit company also owns the Center for Ambulatory Surgery Inc. and is negotiating to acquire the Masonic and Eastern Star Nursing Home.

The company's five-year strategic plan aims to position Washington Healthcare as "the leading, vertically integrated health care company in the mid-Atlantic region," with growth targeted in the areas of ambulatory care, after-care and specialty services.

Columbia Hospital for Women was chartered by Congress in 1866 to provide care for women, and specializes in obstetrics. The nonprofit foundation is a "very strong, financially healthy institution" now, but might consider a merger with a larger organization to ensure continued financial strength in the future, McAlister said.

A merger with Washington Healthcare would provide access to capital and ensure Columbia's long-term survival, she said.

The two organizations cooperate in the area of teen-age maternity care. Washington Healthcare's Capitol Hill Hospital provides adolescent girls with prenatal care and social services, and refers them to Columbia Hospital for delivery and neonatal care.