Racing toward a challenge

With the Boilermaker 15K presented by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield just around the corner, we interviewed two first-time runners to get their perspectives on training, motivation, and rising to the challenge of participating in this annual iconic race.

Why Boilermaker?

For many, the Utica Boilermaker 15K Road Race is considered a bucket-list race.  Runners come from around the world to participate in what is often referred to as one of the nation’s best 15K races.  The 9.3-mile course takes runners down Utica’s historic Parkway and through the hills of Roscoe Conkling Park where runners enjoy beautiful views of the city atop the hills of Valley View Golf Course. 

The course passes through several Utica neighborhoods and extends to the suburbs of Yorkville and New Hartford where runners experience the unique personality of each of these areas as crowds line the streets.  Live bands, music, and entertainment can be found all along the route.  Runners finish out the final leg of the race in the West end of Utica as they head toward the iconic finish line arch just outside of the FX Matt Brewery where they are welcomed to the post-race party, one of the best celebrations around.

Since its inception in 1978, the Boilermaker Road Race has invited runners of all skill levels, from beginners to professionals, to participate.  And for many, it serves as goal to get active or keep up their exercise routine.

Making the commitment

Heather Bentley, Excellus BCBS case manager and Jessica Gann, Excellus BCBS product implementation specialist, signed up for their first Boilermaker 15K this year. “I am a Utica area native and have always wanted to run the boilermaker.  I had cheered on my father in-Law for multiple years and always enjoyed the excitement around it,” says Heather.

Setting goals can be a great way to focus your efforts and gauge your progress. “I have always wanted to run the boilermaker, but never took the opportunity,” explains Jessica. “This year I had it in my mind that I am going to achieve that goal.”

Both Heather and Jessica have experience running various distances up to half marathons. Jessica notes, “In 2017, I ran a 5K, 10K, and a half marathon while living in Hawaii. I have not run much since then, so I’ll be starting over.”

Putting in the work

As with any race, proper training is key. “To prepare for the race I have been trying to run 3 times a week,” shares Heather.  “I signed up for some 5K races to keep myself from procrastinating in my training.” Starting off slow and establishing consistency in your training, are good first steps. “I started off working on running 3 miles consistently and then added miles as the weeks went on,” says Jessica.

Preparing for a race, doesn’t come without challenges. “I did have a little set back from a slight strain to my right Achilles tendon,” explains Jessica. And Heather shares that she often struggles with some hip pain at longer distances. “I focus on stretching to help with that,” she explains.

Stretching is recommended both before and after running to help ward off injury. Mike Smith, certified USAT running coach and co-facilitator of Excellus BCBS’s Boilermaker Virtual Coaching Sessions for the organization’s employees, recommends dynamic stretches pre-workout and static stretches post-workout. He also recommends strength training or cross training to protect from injury. He notes the importance of working at a lower intensity for 80% of your workouts and reserving high or moderate intensity training for a maximum of 20% of your workouts.  Mike encourages all runners to build recovery days into their training plans.

Staying motivated

Training for a race of this distance can take a long time, especially if you are starting from scratch.  Many training plans are designed to be 16 weeks long, so motivation is vital. “Staying motivated is definitely a challenge for me,” explains Jessica. “I do have a very supportive team, my boyfriend – who runs with me and my daughters. I want to prove to my daughters that they can do anything that they put their minds to.”  Having a training partner and accountability can be great motivators.

Heather maintains her motivation by signing up for races leading up to the Boilermaker.  This can be a great way to gain race-day experience and test out clothing, shoes, and nutrition for the longer race ahead.

Challenges and rewards

One of the biggest challenges Heather and Jessica are preparing for are the hills along the Boilermaker course, particularly the large hill from miles 3 to 4. “I like to run the roads around my house, they have lots of hills to prepare for the boilermaker course,” says Heather. 

Along with challenge, comes a great reward. “I am most looking forward to running with all the cheering! It’s so energizing,” shares Heather. “Seeing all of the supporters on route and crossing that finish line is what I’m looking forward to most,” says Jessica.

When asked what piece of advice they would give other runners thinking about running this race, a common theme emerged. “Start preparing earlier than you think you should,” advises Jessica. “Sign up to do it at least once, but don’t procrastinate on your training!” says Heather.

Excellus BCBS is looking forward to cheering on Heather, Jessica and all of the runners at the Boilermaker Road Race on July 9.  Visit the Boilermaker website for more information about the race and all the events happening during Boilermaker weekend. 

Extending skills beyond the classroom

After the final bell rings at 2:30 p.m., students and teachers at Nativity Preparatory Academy of Rochester regroup to continue learning through activities and fun. It’s one of the many ways the organization helps its middle school students be successful by extending the school day beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.

“From tutoring to music and athletic programs, the diversity of resources we offer in the Extended Day Program from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. gives students a chance to build skills in so many different ways,” says James Smith, President of Nativity Preparatory Academy of Rochester, located in downtown, Rochester, New York.

James Smith, President of Nativity Preparatory Academy of Rochester, located in downtown, Rochester, New York.

The Extended Day program, supported by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield through a Health Equity Award grant, exposes students to a wider range of subjects and activities. They are offered tutoring or homework assistance and activities to develop skills in communication, team building, interaction and problem solving.

The traditional classroom learning is complemented with what Smith refers to as, “the fun stuff.” The “fun” includes arts, music, athletics, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities, even a step-dancing team. “Oh my goodness, we do love the step team!” says Smith.

The program also provides more flexibility for parents, eliminating the need for after-school care.

Ivelisse DeJesus is a mom of three. Her two daughters graduated from Nativity and are now volunteers at the school. Her son Hector is currently an 8th grade student. She says it’s priceless to know the impact the school has had on her kids. “They’ve grown and matured here, explored and tried new things, and it’s been so rewarding to see them become who they are because of what they’ve learned.”

Thanks to the program Hector has developed a passion for basketball, furthered his love of helping others and inspired him to become a math teacher. “The staff helps find what is special about you and gives you the opportunities to develop and mature,” says Hector.

Smith says funding like Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Health Equity Grant makes a profound impact in the Rochester, N.Y. area. “It is enormous to have this type of support for our extended day program. It allows us to provide critical staffing to work with our students.”

Check out this video to learn more about the impact the school and the Extended Day Program has had on the DeJesus family and the local community.

Maternal Mental Health Awareness

We invite you to join Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in recognizing Maternal Mental Health Month.  Mental and behavioral health issues affect millions of Americans, and the challenge can be even greater for those impacted by mental illness during pregnancy and postpartum. One in eight mothers experience symptoms of maternal depression.  Developing a strong support system and finding treatment for symptoms can help both mother and baby thrive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health is an important part of overall health and wellbeing. It includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. With more than half of all Americans expected to be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, almost everyone is impacted by mental illness in some way.

Pregnancy and motherhood come with many challenges from lifestyle to hormonal changes. Each woman’s experience is different. Some adapt to these changes easily, while others may struggle physically and mentally. Maternal mental health disorders typically occur during pregnancy and within the first year after birth.

Identifying the signs and symptoms is an important first step to getting help. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of postpartum depression can include intense sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, withdrawing from family and friends, or thoughts of hurting yourself of baby.

If you are struggling, you’re not alone and support is available. The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline provides free, confidential support, resources, and referrals from professional counselors to pregnant and postpartum individuals facing mental health challenges 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Counselors offer support in English and Spanish and interpreter services are available in 60 additional languages. Call 833-943-5746.

The Maternal Mental Health Hotline is not intended as an emergency response line and individuals in behavioral health crisis should contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or chat

Share your story

Sharing stories can be a powerful way to raise awareness about this very important issue. Hear from two courageous mothers and Excellus BCBS employees who are proud to share their stories and encourage others to seek support.

Michelle and her daughter – a thriving college student.

“To say I’m not OK and I need help, shows just how strong you are, because if you’re not here, imagine the light that’s being taken away from those around you,” says Michelle Mack-Hayward, Excellus BCBS Affordability Program Development Specialist.  Michelle experienced the devastating loss of her twin boys at 19 weeks pregnant, followed by a difficult pregnancy with her daughter that included 10 weeks on bed rest in the hospital.  “Having the joy of this beautiful little girl and grieving the loss of my two sons was hard. It took me saying I’m not OK and admitting I need help,” says Michelle. “If my story can help someone get through a rough time, it doesn’t have to be fetal loss, it can just be the hardships of giving birth, motherhood and it’s challenges, and reach out to say I need help, then I will tell it a million times.”  Listen to Michelle’s full story here.

Melinda and her 3-year-old son.

Melinda Coleman, Excellus BCBS Health Care Quality Improvement Manager, knew she just didn’t feel right after giving birth to her son, so she decided to reach out for help. “I felt robbed. I was angry, tired of being in pain all the time and I lost all my confidence,” says Melinda after being pregnant at the height of the pandemic and experiencing a traumatic delivery that left her with nerve damage. “I like to share my story because it may help other mothers to know that things may not go as planned and how to prepare for it,” says Melinda. “If something doesn’t feel right, speak up, talk, you are not alone, and there are resources available to help.” Read Melinda’s full story.

Supporting maternal mental health in our communities

With a goal of reducing racial disparities in maternal health by 50% over the next five years, Excellus BCBS continues to invest in the community, partnering with organizations that are working to improve maternal health outcomes throughout the Health Plan’s footprint.

Multi-year funding has been provided for the following programs:

  • Mount Hope Family Center located in Rochester, NY provides home-based interventions for teen moms to address maternal mental health, parenting and child development, and trauma.
  • Integrated Community Alternatives Network in Utica, NY provides comprehensive prenatal and postpartum care, transitional housing, and a supportive peer community for young homeless women who are pregnant and/or parenting.
  • Oneida Health located in Oneida, NY, began a Women’s Health Behavioral Navigation program designed to bridge the gap between providers, patients, and behavioral health services through a care-coordinated model. The program provides services to address mental health, substance abuse, or age-specific women’s behavioral health conditions of Oneida Health patients receiving care at its Women’s Health office, Lullaby Center, or Emergency Department (ED).
  • Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network located in Binghamton, NY provides home/virtual visits to support new parents with breastfeeding, safe sleep, medical appointments and transportation, insurance & food insecurity through the first year of life.
  • Gerard Place in Buffalo, NY provides education, advocacy, mentoring & clinical tracking of low-income moms by nurse educators.

Keep the conversation going

Excellus BCBS encourages you to keep the conversion about maternal health and maternal mental health going.  If you know someone who is pregnant or has recently given birth, offer to listen.  Visit the CDC’s Hear Her page for helpful resources.

More Mental Health Resources:

Maternal Mental Health Month – “I didn’t know I was grieving after having my son”

May is Maternal Mental Health Month, a time to raise awareness about the mental health of every mother during and after pregnancy.

Motherhood comes with many challenges, but 15-20%  of mothers experience symptoms of depression or anxiety after childbirth, better known as Perinatal Mood or Anxiety Disorders or (PMAD).  This is the number one complication of pregnancy and childbirth and often goes undiagnosed.

Melinda Coleman, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Health Care Quality Improvement Manager, shares how she just didn’t feel right after giving birth to her son and her decision to reach out for help.

“I felt robbed. I was angry, tired of being in pain all the time and I lost all my confidence,” says Melinda after being pregnant during the pandemic in March of 2020. “I had a forceps delivery, ended up having nerve damage and needing pelvic floor therapy. The experience was traumatic and not what I expected.”

Melinda’s son Rhett is happy, healthy and her greatest blessing. Although her body started to heal from the traumatic delivery, she knew after giving birth she wasn’t the same.

“I knew I just didn’t feel right although I passed all the depression screenings at my postpartum appointments,” says Melinda. “I spent a lot of time wondering why me, why did I deserve this, and no one was around because it was during the pandemic. I felt alone and had reached a breaking point.”

That’s when Melinda reached out for help and contacted a therapist.

“It was super easy and the best thing I could have done for myself,” says Melinda. “My therapist told me I was going through the stages of grieving the pregnancy and birthing experience I expected, but never had.”  

Melinda was diagnosed with PMAD. With support from her therapist, she gained her confidence back, and now has the tools to identify emotional triggers so she can be happy and healthy for her family.

“I like to share my story because it may help other mothers to know that things may not go as planned and how to prepare for it,” says Melinda. “If something doesn’t feel right, speak up, talk, you are not alone, and there are resources available to help.”

Neighborhood Haven

The first day Julia Oakley moved into the building in Rochester, N.Y.’s Edgerton neighborhood that would soon be the home of her youth outreach center, she knew she was in the right spot.

“Kids were just roaming the streets. They had no safe place to go. There was a girl, she was rolling down the street in a computer chair with wheels, just rolling up and down the street, no adult supervision. It was 6 o’clock in the evening, nowhere to go,” says Oakley, executive director of the youth community outreach center, Agape Haven of Abundance.

A Place to Go

The goal of Agape Haven of Abundance is to support families in one of the city’s most ethnically, linguistically, and racially diverse neighborhoods. They chose the neighborhood to lift the entire community by empowering youth with the confidence, creativity, and academic performance they need to succeed and explore their passions.

“Families were in need of somewhere where they could immerse their kids and receive additional attention,” says Oakley.

Besides offering a safe place to go, Agape provides free services to the Edgerton neighborhood and surrounding local community for its out-of-school and summer programs. Children and youth ages 6-18 get one-on-one attention, mentorship, homework help, meals, and structured activities to build language and financial literacy, as well as mental health, hygiene, and other support services.

Oakley says that the outreach center has been working well for the community. “Rochester is wealthy with resources, but there was a gap where families were not able to have access to those resources, so I see Agape as a hub to provide the community supplemental resources where we are able to refer families to bigger institutions or come here and meet with other families.”

Helping Kids

“This program is really important because it focuses on helping kids, making sure they are behaving, and learning and having fun,” says Veronica Lawson, a teen who has been with Agape since they opened in 2019. “We’re able to go on field trips and see more things in the world, learn new things, the kids learn a lot and ask a lot of questions.”

Veronica volunteers with the younger children at Agape. “I love kids and I love helping them, I have three younger brothers that I take care of with my mom and dad. This helps me focus on teaching kids and helping them grow as children into young adults. It’s a great program.”

Veronica’s mom agrees.  “I like the program, it’s good for the family,” says Essi Lawson.  “The program gives children opportunities by teaching them how to be successful and conduct themselves. She (Veronica) is learning a lot. I’m proud of her and proud of the work she does to be successful for her future.”

Veronica believes her experience at Agape is helping guide her future. She says learning how to communicate with kids is leading her to think about becoming a teacher or working with children. “That’s what I can learn from the experience. It gives me time to be in the community and operate with other people, to be able to share myself.“’

The Future

The experience of others is guiding Agape’s future as well. The number of its program participants are growing.

When Agape first opened its doors, 15 children and youth participated in the out-of-school program, today the number has doubled to 30. Their summer program can accommodate up to 50.

“I don’t ever want to get to a place where we have to close our doors and we can’t serve families,” says Oakley. “Last year we had to turn families away because we didn’t have enough support staff, or we were full to capacity and that broke my heart.”

Community Partnerships

To be able to serve more families, Agape has reached out to community partners and volunteer support. Oakley says having community partners join them and continue what they are doing is vital. “Community partnership is one of our biggest assets and one of the ways we’ve been able to sustain what we have established in this neighborhood,” says Oakley.

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is one of those partners. Through a Health Equity Award grant, the health insurer provided funding for Agape’s out-of-school program.

Serving the Community

“Word of mouth that our doors are open and they (families/children) look forward to coming here is just a beautiful thing,” says Oakley. “That’s the beauty of the work I do here, knowing I am able to give them the necessary tools they need to progress and develop.”

Oakley still sees the girl who was rolling down the street in the computer chair on that first day, however now it’s in a different setting. “She was the first one here today – everyday, all the time! When I see things like that, I’m glad we’re open, we’re serving the community, to be the support they need.”

Watch this video to learn more about Agape Haven of Abundance and the impact of its programs.

Happy National Doctors’ Day: A message from Dr. Lisa Harris

I am proud and honored to recognize our team of medical, dental, and behavioral health professionals at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and the many physician partners we work with all throughout New York state during National Doctors’ Day! This is a special time to recognize their role and responsibility in serving all people through constant dedication to health and wellness of the body and mind.

Those that work in medicine, of any kind, have a common thread – we went to school and trained to improve patients’ lives no matter where we work or in what community we work. The journey may be different for each of us, but the hope, healing, and health equity we work tirelessly to bring to our communities is the same.

My interest in science goes back to my childhood when I would dissect insects using my mom’s best silverware. In seventh grade, I was inspired by my biology teacher, Mr. Belton, to become a physician. Unable to choose between pediatrics and internal medicine, I became board certified in both areas after graduating from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.  I first dabbled in the administrative side of medicine while serving as chief resident at Wayne State University in Detroit, where my team and I worked to develop employment contract guidelines and revised the clinical billing and editing system.

After a year in that role, my journey led me back home to upstate New York where I was able to care for an underserved population as medical director of the Downtown Healthcare Center in Rochester.  In 2003, I opened my own private primary care practice in Rochester serving more than 3,000 adult and pediatric patients for the next 10 years.  After making the difficult decision to close my practice in 2013, I took on a new role as chief medical officer at Our Lady of Lourdes in Binghamton, gaining additional administrative experience that would position me well for the next chapter in my career.  In 2018, I joined Excellus BlueCross BlueShield as a part-time medical director and shortly transitioned to a full-time medical director before taking on the role of vice president of medical affairs and now senior vice president and chief medical officer.

As I followed my path throughout New York state, serving a variety of populations through my work as a physician and a volunteer, I remained focused on the larger strategy of improving health care for all.  I continue to build on that foundation, working with our senior leadership toward even more member centric care with a focus on health equity.

I draw inspiration from my father, Roy W. King, former supervising judge of Rochester City Court and the first African American to work in the city of Rochester law department.  He lived a life of service and the work that I do as a physician and now as the first African American Chief Medical Officer for Excellus BCBS, allows me to continue our proud legacy of service.

Medicine is a special calling, no matter where you work or how you got there.  We are fortunate to work with more than 18,500 physician partners throughout our regions to fulfill our organization’s mission of helping our members live healthier and more secure lives. Our team of medical directors is proud to work collaboratively with our provider partners seeking input and feedback to improve member care.

I speak for all 4,400 employees at the Health Plan when I say, we are so very grateful for the expertise and dedication of our medical team and physician partners throughout our communities! Happy National Doctors’ Day!


Collage photos of family

An unexpected special delivery for expectant parents

Expectant mom, Lana Polishchuk’s special delivery arrived four months before the birth of her baby boy. It came in a cardboard box – from her health insurance company.

“I received a call from my insurance company. I was pregnant and thought they were calling with information on breastfeeding,” said Polishchuk. Instead, her insurer was calling to invite her to participate in a healthy food home delivery pilot program. “I said food? From an insurance company?!”

Lana Polishchuk with her son

Food from an insurance company

Polishchuk was selected to take part in Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s maternal health food pilot program that delivers fresh food to the homes of expectant moms in their first or second trimesters. About 165 expectant moms were included in the pilot program based on a variety of factors including those in need of access to health care.

The goal is to address food insecurities, improve member health, focus on growing families and expose recipients to a variety of fresh foods. Food deliveries are made bi-weekly or monthly, depending on family size.

Coordinated by Excellus BCBS’s Bright Beginnings care management program, the year-long pilot program is a partnership with Rochester-area food bank, Foodlink, and made possible with funding from the Finger Lakes Performing Provider System.

The boxes are filled with fresh foods including seasonal fruits, vegetables, cheeses, beans, and recipes. Foodlink staff pack and deliver the boxes. Members also receive a box of cookware, including a small blender to make baby food and invitations to join cooking classes sponsored by Foodlink. 

This month’s bounty!

Raising healthy babies

“Raising a healthy baby begins long before childbirth,” said Jeanine Davis, Vice President of Clinical Operations at Excellus BCBS. “Providing convenient and healthy meals aligns with our goals of ensuring the best health outcomes for babies and their families in a holistic member- centric way.”

According to Davis, the goal of its Bright Beginnings program is to engage with members early in their pregnancy journey and connect them to community resources. Doing so helps address maternal morbidity, postpartum depression, preterm birth, admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit, and length of stay.

Bright Beginnings also provides direct access to a multi-disciplinary team including doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, registered dieticians, and others. 

“Partnering with Excellus BCBS has allowed our Curbside Market home delivery pilot program to reach younger customers, but more importantly, it has made it easier for families to access healthy, nourishing food,” said Julia Tedesco, President & CEO of Foodlink. “

“Our Bright Beginnings team’s goal is to connect with families to reduce food insecurity, increase access to health care and decrease emergency department visits and hospital admissions or readmissions,” said Kara Traverse, manager of Excellus BCBS’s Bright Beginnings, maternal/child case management team.  “It’s a great advantage to them.”

A fresh meal in the box

Lana inspecting the latest delivery and recipes

“When I first opened the box, I said, ‘Oh, healthy!’ This is way healthier than anything else because everything is fresh, and you’re being creative and you just follow the recipe,” said Polishchuk.

A working mother of four, she had a 13-year gap between her new baby and his sister. “This was something new to me. Back in the day, 14 years ago, I didn’t cook that much and there was no opportunity like this. It’s a big change and a big transition,” said Polishchuk. 

Using the fresh foods and recipes help keep her on track with healthy eating.  “It was very special to receive that box because it has everything to create meals. I’m always excited, it’s a fresh meal from the box. You always get vegetables. Sometimes we get a huge bag of carrots, and fresh parsley, dill, we always get options. I have high blood pressure, so I have to watch it. Everything is so fresh, it’s really easy and convenient. To come home and cook a meal in 30-45 minutes is amazing,” says Polishchuk.

Cooking for the future

Lana Polishchuk and her daughter with baby

Home prepared meals not only promote good health, but the pilot program also helps promote a healthy lifestyle. Polishchuk says her 13-year-old daughter was a fast-food lover and now enthusiastically helps prepare meals. “It means a lot because when you make homemade food, it’s healthy eating.  As a teenager, it gives her inspiration to help and learn how to cook. She loves to cook now and loves to do it together, with me, learning to cook for the future. It’s amazing, it’s very special for our family.” 

Watch the video to learn how the program has impacted Lana and her family:

Breaking barriers  

“Living our mission and applying an I.D.E.A. (inclusion, diversity, equity, and access) Mindset takes all of us,” says Sady Alvarado- Fischer, Vice President, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer(DEI).  One way we are making a difference is through our Health Equity Awards (HEA) to partner with our community and help fund health and wellness programs that address racial and ethnic health disparities.   

Language and cultural barriers can limit access to information, health care, and pose serious health risks.  Empire Justice Center received a Health Equity Award to enhance the language accessibility of Common Ground Health’s “My Health Story 2022” survey to hear from a diverse group of respondents. Individuals in under-resourced communities can take the survey and share important health information that impacts their well-being and environment.

“You cannot be committed to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility and not address language barriers. By not addressing the language barrier, you are contributing to the systemic racism you are trying to dismantle. Language barriers are a tool of racism and oppression,” says Marlene Cortés, Senior Program Manager, Empire Justice Center.

Increasing accessibility to the survey included adding a text-to-speech option in English and Spanish for those with low literacy levels, or who are legally blind or visually impaired. The HEA funds also supported an American Sign Language (ASL) version.

“I took the survey, and it was awesome because every question and answer had ASL video. I was able to understand without worrying about the English form. This is a first survey which includes ASL that I am aware of done in public. Thank you for breaking the barrier and I hope we will see more of these going forward,” says Ray Kenney, Monroe County Language Access Coalition.  

Survey results will provide a better understanding of where health inequities need to be addressed in our communities, that can now include the needs of people with limited English Proficiency (LEP), and the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.

“This HEA-funded initiative is just one example of what can happen when we partner with community advocates and experts, like Marlene, to address historical barriers to healthcare and develop innovative solutions to improve language access,” says Sady.  

Empire Justice Center also used HEA funds to provide more than 10,000 “iSpeak/iSign,” Language Identification Cards to individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) or are Deaf or hard of hearing, to share with providers and advocate for their need to communicate with an interpreter.

“Together, we can increase equitable access to healthcare services – and when we do so, everybody benefits,” says Sady.

Celebrating and Driving Positive Change for Disability Inclusion

For the second year in a row, our organization has been named a Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion! In conjunction with Disability Pride Month, which is celebrated in July to commemorate the July 26, 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we are spotlighting the incredible ways our employees drive change from within – from advocacy, to accessibility, to stepping outside of their comfort zone.

A team effort

Kaitlin Hawkins-Rusch

Kaitlin Hawkins-Rusch, Talent Management Business Partner, is the co-chair of the Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities (AVID) Employee Resource Group. This year’s Disability Equality Index submission would not have been possible without her support and involvement, from data collection to project management.

Now in her third year as co-chair of AVID, Kaitlin got involved with the Disability Equality Index application after last year’s initial entry. “I wanted to see where improvements could be made, where we could continue to do better. Karen Bodley spearheaded last year’s entry and I’ve really just picked up the baton.”

As the sister of someone diagnosed with autism, Kaitlin got involved with AVID early in her days with the health plan while an intern. Former President/CEO Chris Booth connected her with AVID, who in turn connected her with AutismUp, which provides autism support programs and services in the Greater Rochester and surrounding areas. She volunteers with their I Can Bike camp and participates in the annual Kite Flite.

[My brother] didn’t understand when he was diagnosed as autistic and to this day, he doesn’t identify as autistic. I didn’t put the pieces together and learned about his diagnosis later in life. He was just my brother,” Kaitlin said. With AutismUp, I realize there were so many things we could have provided him, so he’d have been better supported. I’ve learned many ways to try to better connect with and support my brother but volunteering with them gives me the opportunity to help other individuals and families both with and without disabilities.”

Kaitlin says she’s proud of the space AVID has created for its members and is excited for the work ahead.

She explained that this ERG has “started to create a space to challenge people’s perspectives of people with disabilities, especially in the employment space. It also has created a safe space for people to feel supported…so they know others are pushing for more inclusion and equality,” she said. “There may still be employees who don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as having a disability, so there’s still work for us to do.”

100% means more

While the organization has received a score of 100% both years it has applied to the Disability Equality Index, our inclusion efforts don’t stop there.

A score of 100% on the Index does not convey perfection. In fact, a Digital Accessibility Program Manager role was created as a result of our 2021 application findings, recognizing the need to have a designated role focused on digital accessibility for both our internal and external customers.

Justin Blais, our new Digital Accessibility Program Manager, shares more about his role and what we can all do to improve digital accessibility for ourselves, colleagues, and members.

Justin Blais

Can you tell us a bit about what your job entails?

The Digital Accessibility Program Manager role is focused both internally at our employee experience and externally at all our other constituent experiences.  This includes websites, software & systems, documents, videos, emails, mobile apps, etc.  Any of these digital touchpoints needs to meet the basic level of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA criteria and/or follow best practices for content creation. 

In addition to evaluating and progressing the accessibility of these digital touchpoints, the role will also act as a primary driver for providing resources, knowledge, and training around digital accessibility to Employees.  Everyone has a role to play in accessibility, but not everyone has the resources and knowledge, even if it is something you are passionate about; my goal is to help close this gap!

What got you into digital accessibility?

My first experience with ‘digital accessibility’ as a concept came at my previous company in 2012.  We needed to ensure Word documents being created as artifacts were 508 compliant so that people who might use a screen reader can get meaningful access to the same information.  I did research on how to set up Word files correctly, and that really highlighted to me the importance of thinking about structure, labeling, setting up tables correctly, etc. 

When I joined Excellus as a contractor back in 2016, I was hired as a business analyst for the Translation Services and Digital Accessibility projects.  Eventually, I was hired as a Portal Manager which ultimately molded into our Digital Product Manager role.  During this time, I continued to carry accessibility as a responsibility for our external websites and improve processes and knowledge with teams that create external digital ‘stuff’. 

I’m very passionate about the accessibility of our digital ecosystem and am excited to keep this battle going on our external side while also taking focus to our Employee experience as well. 

What is one of the biggest misconceptions about the work you do?

One misconception is that digital accessibility is a complicated nuisance and needs hours of specialized training.  While specialized training is certainly needed for some roles (developers, video editors, content creators, others), there are so many quick little things that we can all do when writing emails or creating that Word or PowerPoint file that can tremendously improve the experience for someone using assistive technology.

The second is that digital accessibility = section 508.  Section 508 was established as a set of criteria for government entities or anyone doing business with or receiving funds from them to adhere to when creating or providing anything digital (websites, files, etc.).  While section 508 plays a part of digital accessibility, it is not all encompassing and really only applies to a portion of our business.  There are standards and sets of criteria such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 that stay more modern and are broadly focused. 

“Get outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself”

With progress worth celebrating in our work toward disability equality for our employees, and lots more work to be done, we can also recognize the ways inclusion and accessibility impact our daily lives as well. Living the Lifetime Way, including modeling IDEA and caring for our wellbeing, doesn’t end when we log off.

Chad Williams, Pharmacy Operations, Excellus Rx Pharmacy Management, recently completed a Spartan Race. He shares his experience with the race and as an athlete with cerebral palsy.

Chad Williams

What does a Spartan Race entail and how did you get involved?

A Spartan Race is an obstacle course race that has varying levels of distance and difficulty. The race that I signed up for was a Spartan Sprint. The Sprint consists of 20 obstacles over 3 miles of mud and tough terrain. I have watched Spartan events on TV and on social media for several years and have always looked up to the athletes that compete in these races. The idea of completing a Spartan myself just didn’t seem like something that was possible for me. In 2021, I was dealing with severe spasticity related to my cerebral palsy. I spent much of 2021 either in pain or wondering how long I would be able to go before the pain would come back.  Not only did I miss out on some things, but I felt like I lost a little bit of myself.  Rather than continue, I made a choice to find a way to alleviate the pain and set some tough goals for myself so that I could show myself what I am capable of.  With that, the challenge to train for and complete a Spartan Race came about. I started training several days a week, starting in January, and I completed my Spartan Race on June 11th.

Do you have another race lined up or are you moving onto other adventures?

One of the best things to come from my Spartan training is a new passion for running. Having never been a participant in a 5K before, I entered a few 5K races to ensure that I was in shape for that element of the Spartan and in doing so, I found that I really enjoy running. Before entering the 5K races, I was training on the canal.  I would put on some headphones and run on the canal, and I just found peace in doing so. It was calming and it gave me some time to think about different things, and I felt good about myself as well. So, then I started challenging myself to work on my running form and trying to increase my pace and it became a new challenge for me that I enjoyed. So, I have recently signed up for another 5K in July and I am looking at races in August and September.  I am also looking at a Spartan Race in October in Lake Placid called a Spartan Trail. The Spartan Trail is 10K hill race with some tough terrain and hills, but no obstacles.

What would you tell others with cerebral palsy who are looking to get involved in athletics?

Every person and every case are different, but I believe there are ways that everyone can get involved in some capacity. With so much information available to us today, there are ways to find options available for your specific abilities. In my case, with the Spartan race, I worked with my doctor as well as a personal trainer that was very supportive in helping to make certain exercises more adaptive and assisted while I worked at being able to build up strength to complete the exercise on my own. My advice would be to start by talking to a doctor, physical therapist, or a certified personal trainer to properly address and work through any limitations that you might have and then set some tough goals for yourself whether that means entering a 5K or setting a consistent exercise routine for yourself. Fitness looks different for everyone but get outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, show yourself what you are capable of!

Listen to Chad’s story on the Daryl Perry Podcast, on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

The Boilermaker Road Race: What keeps you running?

Whether it’s to carry on a family tradition, accomplish a personal goal, or to enjoy the amazing post-race party, every runner has their personal reason for participating in the Boilermaker Road Race.  From its humble beginning in 1978, the Boilermaker Road Race in Utica, NY has grown to become a premiere running event and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is proud to once again be the presenting sponsor of the 15K. 

There is certainly something special about this race.  Whether you are a seasoned runner or taking on the challenge of your first long-distance race, the Boilermaker creates lasting memories that bring runners back year after year and highlights the unique spirit of the Utica region.  We are proud to have over 30 Excellus BCBS employees participating in this year’s 15K and 5K events.  We will be there cheering them on every step of the way.

We were able to talk with several of our employees who are participating in the 15K and hear their Boilermaker story.

Husband and wife, Aileen Lyons and Zachary Nelson will be running the Boilermaker 15K for the first time this year.