My Lifetime Story: Taking Steps Towards Health Equity

As part of Melissa Klinko’s professional development, she was able to enroll in an online Harvard business course, fully sponsored by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, that specifically focused on addressing and reducing health care disparities. Little did she know that this experience would open her eyes to the underlying causes of these disparities and provide her with real-world examples and case studies.

Melissa Klinko is a corporate communications manager for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield

My New Perspective 

 During the course, Melissa gained a new perspective on healthcare and realized the impact of unconscious biases. It was a moment of self-reflection when she recognized that she had assumed the doctor she was seeing was Asian based solely on her last name. However, upon meeting her, she discovered her assumption was incorrect. This incident made her acutely aware of the unconscious biases we all carry and the importance of addressing them to provide equitable care to all individuals.

Melissa’s awareness of disparities in healthcare was further heightened by her brother’s experience. As an adoptee from Korea, he often faces the expectation that he should be able to speak Korean. This expectation becomes frustrating, especially in certain situations. Language barriers are one of the biggest obstacles in healthcare, leading to a lack of care and confusion regarding medications and next steps in treatment. This realization solidified her belief that health equity is crucial in bridging these disparities.

Recognizing and Educating

 By recognizing and addressing systemic racism and biases, we can ensure that everyone receives the care they deserve. It is through educational opportunities like the Harvard Business course, that we can contribute to closing the gaps in healthcare.

Melissa shared that one of the most intriguing aspects of the course was learning about the Kotter method, which helps identify organizational gaps and needs. This method helps to create a vision for change and implement an executable strategy to reduce disparities. Additionally, the course emphasized the importance of collecting and analyzing data unique to underserved populations. By utilizing this data, we can effectively inform and drive meaningful change.

“I am grateful to work for a company that values health equity and actively supports its employees in recognizing disparities in healthcare and education. By providing resources and fostering awareness, our company ensures that we are aware of how situations are perceived and how we can contribute to making a positive difference.”

We Care About Health Equity

 Melissa’s experience sheds light on how Excellus BCBS goes above and beyond in fostering a culture of continuous learning and support for their employees.

Are you interested in joining the Excellus BCBS team?

We have the right fit for you. Positions are available in many departments including Customer Care, Operational Excellence, Marketing and Sales, Information Technology, and more. Check us out at careers.excellusbcbs.com. Get to know our people and our values, and grow your relationship with us.  For more information, reach out to Director of Talent Acquisition Jason Helsdon at Jason.Helsdon@excellus.com.

Picture of a mom holding a baby up over her head

Maternal Mental Health Month: Meet the Bright Beginnings team

Each year, May marks the start of Maternal Mental Health Month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Maternal Mental Health refers to a mother’s overall emotional, social, and mental well-being, both during and after pregnancy. We recognize this month to spread awareness, support, and to encourage the availability of resources for mothers throughout the world.

7 years ago, Lyndsay is driving her newborn to the doctor’s office. As a brand-new mom, she claps her hands to check her baby’s alertness, looking repeatedly to ensure her baby is breathing during the entire 10-minute drive. Upon arriving to the office, she checks with her doctor about her concerns. They reassure her this is “typical,” just another symptom of new motherhood, or the “baby blues.” Lyndsay leaves the office feeling confused, with a feeling in her gut that something isn’t quite right.

Experiences like Lyndsay’s affect mothers worldwide. While awareness is still growing, today, we know that worldwide about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, with the most common being depression. These statistics also show a staggering health disparity for women of color. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30-40% of Black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Alaska Native women do not get the prenatal care they need. This is where programs like Bright Beginnings make a huge difference, stepping in to fill necessary gaps in care like transportation, resources, and provider referrals to help new parents to effectively care for themselves and their mental health.

Solutions for People Who Hate Kids' Music

As a Licensed Social Worker with the Health Plan, Lyndsay recognizes these gaps, and now works persistently to ensure members receive the care they need while pregnant or postpartum through the Bright Beginnings program. Working with individuals who need anything from resources and transportation to treatment for post-partum psychosis, Lyndsay approaches each member with respect and a listening ear. 

“I say, ‘tell me your barriers. You can’t get there? Let me find telehealth. You can’t afford it? Let me find someone who does a sliding scale,’ just really trying to make sure that I’m able to give them all the resources and options that I can give them.”

-Lyndsay, Case Manager

The Bright Beginning program, led by Kara Traverse, includes a team of Licensed Social Workers and Registered Nurses who meet with members referred by area doctors and hospitals, family, and even members themselves. They contact the member, listen to their concerns, and screen for depression and anxiety. From there, the case manager assesses and makes appropriate recommendations, providing resources for transportation, education, mental health support, and more.

Above all, the Bright Beginnings team stands out as a remarkable group of compassionate and experienced health care professionals. In fact, Kara remarks that the team compiled their work experience, saying they collectively have “over 102 years of maternal health experience” on their team.

Excellus BCBS recognizes the gaps in maternal mental health awareness, and the need for more equitable healthcare for members and the community at large. The Bright Beginnings program is just one of a few programs aimed at combatting these issues. We also collaborate with community-based partners which are committed to increasing maternal health care awareness and availability. From breast pump and pregnancy education to mental health screenings and arranging visits to the hospital and pediatrician, the Bright Beginnings program enlists licensed social workers and registered nurses to help parents stay on track, caring for themselves and their children.

Excellus BCBS also supports programs for maternal mental health run by community-based organizations in our regions. Some of these efforts include: Seven Valleys Health Coalition’s Post Partum Doula Support and Doula Partnership, Contact Community Services’ Maternal Mental Health Follow Up Support, and Integrated Community Alternatives Network’s Maternal Health Equity for Pregnant Homeless Teens.

Local doctors, local decisions

Did you know that Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is supported by a team of local Medical Directors?  That’s right, a team of 27 doctors who live and work right here in our communities serve as Medical Directors for the health plan. This diverse group includes medical, dental and behavioral health specialists. Their work ensures that every one of our members is receiving equitable, high-quality care that’s as affordable as possible. It’s not only a love of science and medicine that drew them into the profession, but an innate need to help, heal, and serve others.

Working with community doctors

Doctor listening to baby's heart beat.

A strong relationship with community providers is essential to providing quality care to our members. As board certified physicians with years of experience caring for patients in hospitals and outpatient settings, our Medical Directors work together with our local providers to improve quality and control costs by identifying opportunities to close gaps in care, and better controlling chronic health conditions.  An example of this is our value-based payment arrangements where we reimburse doctors based on the quality of care they deliver and not just the number of services they perform. Providers can receive higher reimbursement when they meet goals around quality, experience and affordability. This is one of the ways we work with doctors to improve care while controlling costs.

This team actively collaborates with our provider partners, seeking their input and feedback in areas such as medical policy, quality improvement and medical management. This collaboration leads to improved member care and healthier communities.

Improving member wellbeing

Our Medical Directors seek out innovative opportunities to engage our members in enhancing their health and wellbeing. This dedicated group of physicians serves as advisors and leaders for dozens of initiatives. For example, in 2024 we introduced a new virtual physical therapy option to help our members manage musculoskeletal disorders from the comfort and convenience of a virtual environment. And we have partnered with a kidney care management program to help members with stage 4-5 chronic kidney disease navigate medical care services and follow their physician’s treatment plan.

A senior aged woman in her home, talking to a doctor online in a virtual appointment.

Our code of ethics

They tackle big issues such as health care disparities, rising costs, and a changing health care landscape while following a code of ethics rooted in trust.  This code embraces quality and patient safety in clinical decision-making.  Our Medical Directors define quality care as safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable. Their decisions are guided by evidence-based standards of care and the expertise of community providers.

Proud to live in the local area

Our Medical Director team is proud to call the upstate New York area home.  You might see them out in your neighborhood enjoying time with their family, running errands, or participating in community events. Get to know our Medical Directors by visiting our website to learn more. 

Educating our communities about health care (Video)

Common Ground Health is one of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s 2023 Health Equity Innovation Award recipients. Funds are used for their Get It Done program to support African American and Latino barbers and beauticians who serve as community health educators (CHEs) and peer leaders to increase health knowledge, community outreach, and increase health/mental health workshops. Support will also be provided for referrals to health care and health/social service resources.

More than 30 barber shops and beauty salons in all four quadrants of the city of Rochester take part in the Get It Done events.

Jackie Dozier, Director of Community Health and Wellbeing at Common Ground Health

“We’ve found that when people come in to get their hair done or cut, they have conversations with their stylist about whatever issues they are going through personally and professionally,” says Jackie Dozier, Director of Community Health and Wellbeing at Common Ground Health. “This is a great opportunity for stylists to educate and share health care resources and information with clients in the black and brown communities who live in the neighborhoods they serve.”

(Video) Learn more about the impact of these Get It Done events below from a salon owner and student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Upstate Family Health Center Receives Health and Wellness Award

We recently awarded the Upstate Family Health Center (UFHC) a $5,000 Health and Wellness Award to support their Low Barrier Emergency Food Cupboard. This program was created to provide patients in need with balanced food bags for individuals presenting to the clinic in need.

“This generous donation will have a major impact in helping us meet our goal of providing our patients with balanced meals,” said Torie Hairston, senior director of integrated health at Upstate Family Health Center. “What sets this program apart is the fact that we have made the food supplies available, while eliminating barriers such as showing identification and providing documentation. This eliminates stigmas and embarrassment which can often prevent individuals from seeking help.”

UFHC created the cupboard after an evaluation of patient needs indicated a prevalence of food in-security. Food insecurity is associated with lower school performance for children, low physical activity, poor general physical health and illness, and poor mental health.

Food insecurity impacts individuals across the lifespan and can lead to anemia, cognitive problems, behavioral problems, depression, anxiety, and asthma. It is also associated with unhealthy weight control behaviors and disordered eating.

Health and Wellness Awards support programs that conduct ongoing work or initiatives designed to improve community health and health outcomes. Health disparities are complex and can have many causes. These awards are given to programs that address specific health conditions or factors linked to health disparities.

“Identifying and combatting health issues including food insecurity is core to our mission as a nonprofit health plan,” said Eve Van de Wal, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield regional president. “We are proud to present Upstate Family Health Center with community health funding to help meet their patients’ needs and provide them with essential meals and nutrition.”

Mission Moment: How our funds support our community

The Monroe County Family Coalition is one of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s 2023 Health Equity Innovation Award recipients. Funds will be used to provide more mental health wellness, support and education to youth and families, develop a peace garden to address food deserts and nutrition shortages in underserved communities, and enhance financial literacy and crisis support resources.

“We want to meet people where they are and make sure that no one is left behind,” says Dina Johnson, president and CEO of Monroe County Family Coalition. “Addressing inequities and health disparities in our community is vital to the success of our youth and families and we couldn’t do it without partnerships like the one we have with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.”  

Dina Johnson, president and CEO of Monroe County Family Coalition and Kimberly McKinsey-Mabry, Excellus BCBS community investments and partnerships manager.

Hear from two women who share very different experiences of how The Monroe County Family Coalition has impacted their lives.  

Super healthy snacking tips for Sunday’s big game

Four quarters of big-game football can be grueling, especially for those watching at a house party with a big-time buffet just an arm’s length away. It’s important to approach kickoff with a solid game plan to assure that you make it to the post-game wrap-up without getting sacked by too much Kansas City barbeque or San Francisco sourdough.

“Before you go to your viewing party, have a small, healthy snack such as an apple or a handful of raisins and nuts,” says Amanda Shanahan, registered dietitian nutritionist and manager of employee wellbeing at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “If you’re hungry when you get to the party, your willpower will go ‘wide right.’”

Shanahan suggests offering to bring a healthy dish for everyone to enjoy, such as vegetables and low-fat dip. You can crunch away on celery, broccoli, bell peppers and carrots! Be wary of dipping veggies in ranch or a similar creamy dressing which could load on the calories. Instead, prepare dips using Greek yogurt or light sour cream.

Serve baked tortilla chips instead of the traditionally fried version. Baked tortilla chips make an equally good base for nachos, which can be stacked high with layers of cilantro, shredded lettuce, beans, fresh avocado, and diced tomatoes and jalapenos. If you’re adding ground beef, use the kind labeled “90 percent lean, 10 percent fat,” and be sure to drain away the grease.

It may be most difficult to imitate chicken wings ‒ especially when they are deep fried and tossed in a butter-based sauce ‒ but Shanahan also has alternatives to this game day staple.
“Try baking chicken breast strips and dipping them in hot sauce,” she said.

Another tip is, before deciding on what you want to nibble on, take a 30-second food timeout to assess all the choices on the game day spread. Move away from the table, walk around, and mingle. “If you stay next to the food, you’re more likely to overeat,” says Shanahan. “This also provides an intentional pause to determine whether or not you are truly hungry.”

By being aware of what you are eating and focusing on portion size, the game, and the company, you’ll be able to make it to the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy feeling like a winner.

Mission Moment: Member story: How our localism makes a difference

As an active community member and local senior center volunteer, Richard doesn’t like to sit still. However, sciatic nerve pain can slow him down.    

“I wish I had changed health plans earlier. I am saving money on doctor visit copays and two prescriptions that I take,” says Richard. “I have much better coverage, the service I receive is awesome, and I have a friend in Helen.”  

Richard and Helen at the local senior center

Helen Pleszewicz, Medicare Consultant, met Richard for the first time in their apartment complex parking lot.

“I would be out walking my dog and see Richard outside and we would just start talking. We were neighbors and we got to know each other,” says Helen. “We talked about health insurance coverage, what he liked, what he didn’t like, and I mentioned when it comes time, let’s see what the plans are, and we can sit down and compare.”

So that’s what they did. Richard was particularly interested in his dental coverage, having paid extra for it on his previous plan. He quickly learned it was part of our Medicare benefits.

“There was no pressure. I felt so relaxed and informed. Medicare can be complicated, but Helen took the time and explained everything to me, so I was aware of my coverage, and I decided to make the change. I’m so glad I did,” says Richard.

“It’s personal to me. I’m working with people who are part of my community, they are like family and it’s important to show people we are local. You never know the impact you could have on someone just by having a conversation,” says Helen.

There’s no slowing Richard down. He’s joined a senior exercise class and says eating right, and being around family and friends, is what keeps him motivated, happy, and as healthy as he can be.

Hear more from Helen and Richard in this video.
https://youtu.be/sgducYfAiNo

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.