A visionary volunteer steps away from leading Harford's hospitals

As the relatively young chief of surgery at the old Fallston General Hospital more than a quarter of a century ago, Dr. Roger Schneider wasn’t bashful about complaining about the poor condition of the building, or the need for more better trained physicians.

He recalled a meeting with Frederick Mitchell, who was then chairman of Upper Chesapeake Medical Systems, owner of Fallston General and Harford Memorial hospitals, “who told me it was time to put up or shut up,” and offered him a seat on the Harford County nonprofit’s board of directors.

Barely two years later, Schneider found himself in another meeting with Mitchell and other leaders, who offered him the board chairmanship.

It was not the best of times, because the two hospitals were having financial problems and many Harford County residents were leaving the county for their health care needs, as detailed in a series of damning investigative articles published by The Aegis. Community leaders, business leaders, elected officials were demanding changes.

Schneider said he had one condition, which amounted to making a complete change in top management and replacing, and was told he had it. It was a propitious decision not only for the health care nonprofit and for Schneider, but also for the residents of Harford County.

On June 30, Schneider, 65, stepped down after 23 years leading the Upper Chesapeake board, relinquishing his board seat, as well. He was the only physician chairing a hospital company in the state, a distinction he may have had for much of his tenure.

The vascular surgeon did not receive compensation. He did it, he says, “because I believed in what I was doing and in getting the best health care system we could possibly have for Harford County.”

Under Schneider’s leadership, Upper Chesapeake closed the inadequate Fallston hospital and in 2000 opened the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and campus on Route 24 in Bel Air, recognized as one of the finest regional hospitals in the state. In addition to the acute care hospital, the campus includes an outpatient surgery and ambulatory care center, medical arts center and a state-of-the-art cancer treatment center.

Upper Chesapeake, which affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System in 2013, is a $500 million-plus a year operation, employing 3,500 people, including 650 health care professionals, according to Schneider and the nonprofit’s website, the latter which state’s the organization is Harford County’s second largest employer.

In his leadership role, Schneider had to deal with state regulators and occasional community opponents, while cajoling donors who made many of his goals possible through their generosity.

He estimates he spent at least 30 percent of his time, probably more, on business related directly to Upper Chesapeake, so much time that he negotiated with his practice partners and accepted a pay cut commensurate with the time spent away.

When Upper Chesapeake faced financial uncertainties earlier in this decade, he engineered its association with University of Maryland Medical System, a deal he says he doesn’t regret and one he says is structured as an “affiliation,” not a top-down merger, one he believes Upper Chesapeake could leave if a better offer came along.

He did it while the entire health care industry underwent its own cataclysmic changes and while being engaged with his own growing regional vascular surgery practice and raising a family.

He and his wife, Melissa, a dentist, settled in Lutherville early in their respective careers and have remained there, despite Schneider’s strong professional connection to Harford County. They have two grown sons, Jonathan, who with his wife recently opened a yoga studio in California, and David, who spent the past three years in China and is looking to further his studies in the field of international relations, according to his father.

Where Upper Chesapeake was concerned, Schneider was the ultimate volunteer and also the ultimate visionary, according to two Upper Chesapeake board members who professed their mutual respect for the former chairman.

“I can say of Roger two things that mean everything to me. First, he establishes indelibly a sense of the magnitude of the work being carried on at Upper Chesapeake,” William B. Allen, a board member and Havre de Grace resident, said via email.

“From the beginning of my association with the UCH Foundation, I have enjoyed encouraging and welcoming support from Roger,” Allen, a political scientist, former university professor and dean and former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said. “He has shown generosity and commitment, centered in a fund of historical knowledge.”

“Secondly, no one has been more upbeat about the possibilities for health care in Harford County,” Allen continued. “Accordingly, his legacy will be one of having set the tone for ambitious and sacrificial exertions for the sake of a secure health care future not only by board and team members but by much of the community.”

“As for our future as a board, I am confident that we will continue Roger’s devotion to UMUCH, starting with taking advantage of reorganization to articulate clearly our future tire paths,” Allen said.

Rajiv Goel, another board member, said Schneider instilled in him what is possible and the need to plan proactively.

“Roger taught me to think about the future and to be innovative, to ask what we as a hospital can be, not in a year, but in 2030,” Goel, a Bel Air resident and a lawyer, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Without a doubt he has us going in a positive direction, and I believe it will make our hospitals better 25 years from now and our community, as well.”

Goel said he believes the organization will be able to adapt to changes in the industry and stay “ahead of the curve” in technology and patient care. He said Schneider left he and other board members with a road map to “get things right and do what we need.”

‘Best care possible’

Sitting in a office in the Vascular Surgery Associates Suite in Upper Chesapeake’s Klein Ambulatory Care Center Wednesday morning, Schneider said he is happy to concentrate “on my first love,” his medical practice, which he started in 40 years ago and which has grown to include multiple partners and locations around the region.

Years ago, Schneider once remarked that his patients were typically “the sickest people” any physician would see. “With your patients, it’s got to be a relationship built on trust,” he said Wednesday. “That’s what has always motivated me, providing the best care you can for people who are putting their full trust in you – often life and death decisions.”

“That’s what I always wanted for this community,” he said. “To have the best facilities and the best physicians giving the best care possible, and I do believe we have accomplished those goals, while also recognizing we can continue to do better.”

He said it’s time for new leadership to step forward at Upper Chesapeake and he has no regrets about stepping aside.

Upper Chesapeake has not named a replacement for Schneider, who also stepped down from his board seat with University of Maryland Medical. He said a final decision isn’t likely to be made until around the end of the year and also emphasized, he’ll have no role in the decision.

Schneider said he continues to maintain a good relationship with Upper Chesapeake President and CEO Lyle Sheldon, whom Schneider personally picked to head the organization more than 20 years ago, but it was still time to more on.

“Many of the people I worked with closely [on the board] aren’t here any more,” he said, mentioning the late Shirley Klein, who with her late husband, Ralph, were also major donors, as were the Dresher and Kaufman families; and other longtime board members such as the late Randall Worthington Sr. and the late H. William Acker, who were the go-to people when something needed to get done.

M. Scott Kaufman, who with his wife, Patricia, gave millions to endow the cancer treatment center that opened in 2013 and bears their names, remains a director emeritus but has retired to Florida, Schneider said.

Andrew Klein, Ralph and Shirley’s eldest son, remains a director and Klein Family, which owns the local ShopRite supermarkets, continues to be a major donor, but Anthony Meoli, a member of the Dresher Family and a board member during the early days of Schneider’s tenure, has stepped away.

“These are some of the people I worked with very closely, who accepted the vision and wanted to invest in it,” he said. “They put their hearts and souls into this; they had no ulterior motives. They wanted to do something for their community.”

avought@theaegis.com

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