Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BANGOR, Maine — Northern Light Health has eliminated cataract, glaucoma and oculoplastic surgeries at a Bangor hospital, leaving patients hanging after their procedures were suddenly canceled.

The decision, made earlier this month at Eastern Maine Medical Center — one of the system’s 10 hospitals around the state — does not affect pediatric eye care or retina medical care and surgeries, spokesperson Amy Kenney said. It “does not mean eye care is closing, but rather is making some changes to better position (itself) for the future,” she said.

It’s unclear how many patients were affected by the decision. Kenney declined to comment on whether doctors or others were laid off or have left their jobs to work elsewhere, citing that personnel matters are confidential.

The move is Northern Light Health’s latest cost-cutting measure. Recent decisions by the Bangor region’s largest health care system to scale back or sell off services include closing its Orono primary care practice and allowing Quest Diagnostics, a national company, to manage laboratories at nine hospitals and the Northern Light Cancer Care in Brewer, among others. Northern Light officials have argued the changes were necessary after incurring significant expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many surgical eye-care procedures can be, and are being, done in outpatient centers and don’t require the more sophisticated services of a tertiary medical center like EMMC,” Kenney said.

Eliminating these surgeries ensures EMMC is directing resources in the right places, she said.

Daryl Witmer, who lives in Monson, had cataract surgery scheduled for March 13 and was notified a week before that it was canceled. It was frustrating considering the emotional and financial investment leading up to the surgery, as well as lost time, he said.

That includes the commute to and from Bangor and the pre-operation appointment where his eyes were dilated and he discussed lenses with Dr. George Shafranov, an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist who joined Northern Light Health in 2020.

Witmer was told that Shafranov was leaving, although the office staff did not specify whether he was being laid off or had chosen to leave.

Witmer was originally referred to a different eye care practice in Bangor. But because he has trouble breathing while reclined, he needed anesthesia for the surgery and certain practices will not accommodate, he said, which is why he was scheduled at the hospital. He drives a van with handicap mobility access, but with his eyes dilated, his wife needs to drive the vehicle equipped for his needs, which can be difficult, he said.

Northern Light Health has the prerogative to eliminate these surgeries and make decisions about the services its hospitals offer, Witmer said. But patients with scheduled procedures were left stranded, he said, and the hospital system has not been accountable.

Daryl Witmer is founder and director of the apologetics ministry AIIA Institute, located in Monson. He used to write a column for the Bangor Daily News.

“I have no issue with the medical staff and the services at Northern Light,” he said. “They saved my life 39 years ago, and my wife’s life. They have been wonderful to us over the years. But something is amiss with the administration and at the very least how they handle patient concerns.”

Witmer contacted the office of Timothy Dentry, Northern Light Health’s president and CEO, and reached out twice to the hospital system’s patient experience line, where he expressed his concerns and asked for information about cataract surgery being discontinued. No one ever got back to him, he said.

“Our patients are being asked to connect with their optometrist, primary care provider or comprehensive ophthalmologists for next steps and future care,” Kenney said, noting EMMC is reaching out to eye care offices to inform them of the change.

Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, about two and a half hours from Bangor, is the only other hospital in the Northern Light system to provide eye care services, Kenney said. The elimination of cataract, glaucoma and oculoplastic surgeries only affects EMMC, she said.

There are other places that offer eye care in the Bangor area, such as Eastern Maine Eye Associates and Eye Center Northeast, among others. Some of them offer surgeries.

Witmer received his cataract surgery earlier this week at Vision Care of Maine in Bangor, and he’ll have to return for an operation on his other eye as well. An ophthalmologist there was able to work with him to ensure he tolerated the surgery well, he said.

Kenney didn’t have other operational changes to share this week. Maine Public reported in December of last year that EMMC planned to close its acute inpatient rehabilitation program, which treats patients who have traumatic injuries and debilitating disease and those recovering from some surgeries.

“We continue to provide that service on our inpatient units versus staffing a standalone unit for this care,” Kenney said. “This redesign is more in keeping with how hospital rehabilitation services are delivered across the country to ensure patients are ready for a move to a rehab facility in their community.”

In the course of any year for any large organization, operational changes are made depending on a variety of factors, she said.