A Winding Road to Healthcare

Joel Schuessler didn’t always intend to follow his family into the healthcare business, but pursuing his passions ultimately led him there anyway, and into an integral leadership role at one of Georgia’s largest healthcare systems

When Joel Schuessler was a young engineering student at Cornell University, he dreamt of designing cars and working for an auto giant. In fact, the car aficionado briefly envisioned a life in motor racing—driving Formula 2000s, “with the wings and open wheels”—but soon put the brakes on the idea, albeit not before a few rounds at the speedway. In search of a more viable career, he decided to switch gears, enrolling in the university’s business program and later going off to law school. That’s where he discovered healthcare law.

Or maybe it found him. For as long as Schuessler can remember, he was surrounded by family members who worked on the business side of healthcare. While there were no clinicians to speak of, his father served as a VP of human resources at the hospital he was born in. His grandfather was an industrial engineer managing a pharmaceutical plant. His uncle was a hospital CEO. And in his youth, his parents opened a successful medical billing company that is still in operation today.

“It’s been the unofficial family business,” says Schuessler, now VP of legal services and chief compliance officer at DeKalb Medical, based in greater Atlanta. “I grew up in it. But I had a circuitous route to law school and working in healthcare.”

After meeting his wife in law school, Schuessler moved with her to Miami, where he immediately joined the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA). He used it as a platform to network with healthcare lawyers and was eventually given the opportunity to put his skills into practice at a boutique health-law firm. “We did everything from individual physicians and physician groups to nursing homes and healthcare IT,” says Schuessler, adding that he owes his early success to mentorship from the firm’s owner, Sandra Greenblatt. “It allowed me to do a lot of substantive work early in my career.”

“You have to understand the industry you work in. Be a part of the team and the discussion so you can offer a different perspective on it.”

Despite getting his feet wet there, Schuessler and his wife couldn’t envision raising a family in the Magic City. So, leaning on his connections, they headed to Atlanta in 2008, where Schuessler landed at DeKalb Medical.

“My first job at DeKalb was as staff attorney,” Schuessler says. “I’m the first in-house counsel DeKalb ever employed directly. When I started, I had a regulatory/transactional-focused legal position. We were on the front end of implementing physician-employment issues—developing contracts, working with fair-market-value consultants. That’s how I got my start.”

It was a sizable jump from a small health-law firm to a prominent nonprofit healthcare system with three hospital campuses. Still, Schuessler felt he was in his element. After just three years as a staff attorney, he was promoted to VP of legal services and chief compliance officer, where he is involved in all aspects of legal services, including human-resources-related issues and litigation, contract negotiations, auditing, and regulatory work.

“I kind of cover the waterfront,” Schuessler says. “My areas of responsiblity are oriented at identifying and evaluating risk. My team helps to evaluate and interpret not what the law says, but [how to] translate the law to daily operations.”

Schuessler is additionally intricate in enterprise project management, a role he says is reflective of how healthcare lawyers have evolved into strategic business partners. “We have an enterprise-wide process focused on identifying, prioritizing, and managing major projects,” he says, such as upgrading DeKalb Medical’s EHR system or focusing on reducing readmissions. “We evaluate projects by looking at factors such as, what are we trying to accomplish? What kind of resources do we need? . . . We score each project on a number of business drivers, like patient safety, ROI, or regulation compliance.”

The biggest challenge of balancing so many different components from a legal standpoint, according to Schuessler, is keeping up with the pace of change within the industry.

“Since I’ve been in practice, we’ve had major changes to the Stark Law [a limitation on physician referrals], and right on the heels of that the Affordable Care Act—where there is major payment reform,” he says. “We have to keep ourselves well educated in the markets around us to make sure we’re responding appropriately to change.”

Some measures may make business sense, Schuessler says, but are not feasible due to regulation. He often works with departments to meet their needs in a way that allows both parties to reach the ultimate goal. It all comes down to lawyers understanding underlying business principles and engaging in healthy discussion—rather than always shooting down ideas and saying no.

“You have to understand the industry you work in,” Schuessler says. “Be a part of the team and the discussion, so you can offer a different perspective on it. We’re trying to maintain operations and make sure we can achieve adequate financial results to serve our community and meet our mission.”

In the eight years since Schuessler came aboard at DeKalb Medical, he has helped restructure the healthcare system’s corporate debt and developed its compliance program; represented the system in court; and built relationships with physicians, fellow healthcare-business professionals, and his team members of both in-house and outside legal counsel.

Being entwined in so many different levels is what keeps Schuessler excited at DeKalb Medical. “I get to do so many things that I don’t think I would ever be able to do if I was in private practice,” he says. “I get to spend the time working on the things I am good at and enjoy. I also have the real pleasure of leading a  fantastic team of dedicated professionals who exceed my expectations every day.”

Schuessler’s next challenge? Restoring a ’65 Mustang with a fellow car aficionado, his dad. “I’m still a car guy,” he adds. AHL