Two of the region's largest healthcare providers have taken a large step towards a merger.

The boards of Southcoast Health and Care New England have voted to move forward with the merging of the not-for-profit hospital and healthcare systems.

The two systems began studying the possibility of a merger in November.

The two entities will now move toward the execution of the affiliation agreement and then subject themselves to required regulatory review processes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

If approved by the Massachusetts and Rhode Island health departments and other state agencies, the new system would be a $2 billion-plus entity with eight hospitals and more than 15,000 employees.