A soon-to-open independent surgical center hopes to expand its outpatient services to include ophthalmology and plastic surgery, concerning some local hospitals who fear the expansion may steal even more of their patients.

The Green Mountain Surgery Center, based in Colchester, outlined its request last week before the Green Mountain Care Board, the regulatory entity that first approved the surgical center’s certificate of need in 2017. The board didn’t issue any decision on the expansion this week, and according to VTDigger, there remains disagreement over whether the board has the authority to limit the additional medical services.

But last week’s hearing featured testimony both for and against the expansion, with advocates saying it will allow the surgical center to give Vermonters more choices and better competition – the same rationale used during the center’s initial bid to provide services in the area  – while opponents argued the surgical center will take physicians and patients away from existing hospitals.

Among the detractors at the April 17 hearing was Jill Berry Bowen, Northwestern Medical Center of St. Albans chief executive officer, who told the board that the center is already taking two physicians from the hospital.

“Now we face an additional expansion of the initiative, which will draw more surgical procedures away from the hospital. That will be detrimental,” Bowen said at the meeting.

Dr. Julie Larson, founder of The Eye Surgery Center in South Burlington, shared similar concerns. She called on the board to oppose the surgical center’s request to add eye surgeries already offered by her facility, namely cataract removal procedures, because the expansion is based on “no proof of need.” She added her facility operates at a 60 percent availability, so there’s room for growth.

The Green Mountain Surgery Center request comes before the surgery center officially opens its doors. Colchester town officials joined Gov. Phil Scott for a ribbon cutting ceremony last month, but the center won’t start performing surgeries until it’s Medicare certified, which could take several months.

GMSC initially said it would provide “elective, non-emergent” services in gastroenterology, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics and more. But the center is seeking the expansion following a change in the availability of physicians in the area, according to Amy Cooper, the surgical center’s manager.

Several physicians included in the center’s original projections have moved, retired or changed their practices, Cooper wrote in a letter to the board, while 14 local physicians now plan to use the center in addition to the 10 remaining from original projections. That includes two independent plastic surgeons and four independent ophthalmologists.

At the time of its application, according to Cooper, there were no plastic surgeons in the county and no eye doctors interested in joining the center.

“In the dynamic local healthcare landscape, a small multi-specialty surgery center project that takes several years to plan and build needs to have the flexibility to absorb the loss of certain physicians or specialties,” Cooper wrote.

One medical professional who spoke in favor of the surgical center expanding its services was Dr. Michelle Young, an ophthalmologist who now performs retina surgeries at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Young said she and her business partner have been trying without much luck for years to find alternatives to the Burlington hospital, which recently changed the way it schedules operating rooms.

Previously, the hospital blocked out one day a week for Young and her partner to perform surgeries on site, Young said, but now they must book rooms a week in advance or release the time to other surgeons.

“I expect that the Green Mountain Surgery Center will provide a high quality facility that meets my scheduling needs, which is ultimately for the wellbeing of my patients,” she told the GMC board.