Picture of Chad Tooke

Employee-veterans guide development of new vet-focused Medicare offering

When US Army Veterans Rick Jennejahn, Chad Tooke, Brian Brady, and Rob Contestabile left active military service, one might’ve assumed their days of serving their country and supporting their fellow soldiers were over. But now, as employees of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, they’re serving our members and communities as advocates for veterans in an unanticipated but widely impactful way.

Recognizing that several health care needs of upstate New York veterans were not being met, Health Plan Vice President for Medicare Karen Bodley and Medicare Segment Manager Nicole Felts began working on putting together a team charged with filling those care gaps.

“We wanted to serve our veterans with a product that addresses their specific needs,” says Felts. “To explore how we might do that, we knew there was no better way than to talk directly to the military veterans working at our company.”

Felts and Bodley reached out to the Health Plan’s Veterans Network ERG to set up a series of focus group discussions to hear veterans’ perspectives on the health care gaps they and their fellow veterans face.

Finding that cohort of veterans at the Health Plan was not difficult – the health insurer’s work culture encourages employees to join one or more of the company’s Employee Resource Groups or “E-R-Gs,” that bring employees together based on specific identities including ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and military service.

Felts and her team contacted Contestabile (competitive intelligence analyst), who then reached out to Tooke (provider network and strategy manager), Brady (investigative clinical pharmacist), Jennejahn (director of pharmacy innovation), and several other veteran-employees from the Veteran’s Network ERG. This veteran group augmented a cross-departmental force that included representatives from Marketing, Customer Care, Medicare Sales, Membership & Billing, and others.

It was an opportunity for these veterans, now out of the service, to once again support their brothers and sisters in arms.

“The veteran community is different,” says Tooke. “Certain needs are much bigger for veterans, like transportation, for example. A lot of veterans are physically isolated and can’t get to health care facilities very easily. And behavioral health – that is a big topic and something we pushed for.”

According to RAND Health, one in five US military veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experiences mental health issues, but only half of those who need treatment seek medical help. Serious mental health challenges connected to military service such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety also have direct ties to substance use, social isolation, and homelessness, creating a deep fissure in the fabric of our communities.

“We not only talked about behavioral health, access, but also cost,” says Jennejahn. “If a vet can’t get what they need at the VA, oftentimes they’ll go without because they can’t afford to pay to go somewhere else.”

Additionally, US military veterans are disproportionately older, male, and face greater health challenges compared with non-veterans.

“The nature of military service can cause hearing issues—a significant number of veterans have some degree of hearing loss,” Contestabile says. “We see access to hearing services as an enormous benefit.”

The Medicare product innovation team took away from the focus groups the following key points: Veterans need better health care options specific to access to providers and facilities, better behavioral health services, and better transportation options.

“With our internal veterans’ input and guidance, we enhanced our Medicare products to provide those options. The plans offer veterans who want to expand their VA health benefits with the added extras of greater access, no-cost behavioral health visits, and transportation assistance, among other things,” says Felts, “And it’s worth noting that this/these product/s can benefit non-veterans as well.”

In addition to a $0 premium, low copays for primary care, and specialist and telehealth visits, these expanded Medicare plans include:

  • Access to the Health Plan’s expansive network of doctors, specialists, hospitals, and health care facilities for ease and convenience
  • $0 preventive and comprehensive dental with a $1,000 annual allowance
  • $0 copay for behavioral health in-office visits
  • 12 one-way rides each year to health-related locations at no cost
  • $35 Part B premium refund each month
  • $50 each quarter to spend on non-prescription, over-the-counter health and wellness items
  • Healthy home meal delivery service following medical procedures or hospital discharge
  • A constant connection to care and medical resources including telehealth, care management, and a 24/7 nurse care line
  • $4,500 maximum out-of-pocket protection
  • Annual eyewear allowance of $250
  • Free routine hearing exams
  • And more

The Medicare team will continue to meet with the veterans group to assess the new plan as it rolls out, gather feedback, and brainstorm new ideas and adjustments for future plan years.

Brady believes veterans will appreciate having more health care options. “They fought for our freedom,” he says. “Now they have the freedom to choose.”

“We’re here for our community members – to be advocates,” Contestabile adds. “It’s important to recognize the service of our veterans, and offer them a benefit that makes a difference.”

For more information, visit ExcellusMedicare.com.

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Using development tools to grow from intern to executive

When Melissa Gardner began her career with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield 18 years ago, she didn’t set out to become executive vice president chief population health engagement officer.  In fact, she wasn’t even aiming for a senior leadership position. “It wasn’t my goal to be at the executive level,” explains Melissa. “But I did aspire to solve bigger problems and help more people.  I’m fueled by solving problems and crave learning something new.”

Like pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly together, Melissa’s eagerness to learn and take on new challenges coupled with the many development opportunities offered through Excellus BCBS, created the career we see today.  Her journey began when she was offered an internship with the provider operations department during her junior year of college.  Melissa’s forward thinking contributed to a process improvement initiative that had a great impact on the organization’s ability to track provider information.  Her success led to an offer to become a permanent employee even prior to graduating college.  She accepted the position and began working with Excellus BCBS in February while finishing her bachelor’s degree in the evenings.  “The company was able to provide me with a flexible schedule that allowed me to finish my degree,” says Melissa. “They were flexible with my work location as well.  I was able to finish school in Ithaca and move to Rochester after I graduated in May.”

Since that time, Melissa went on to earn her Master of Public Health degree from the University of North Carolina utilizing the tuition assistance program offered through Excellus BCBS. She has gained experience in almost every department within the organization, having had more than 10 different positions during her 18-year career. “My core strength is being a connector, understanding others’ strengths, and connecting people, processes, and technology,” explains Melissa. “When an area needed to work cross functionally, I was often asked to lead those teams.”

While hard work, talent, and determination played an important role, those are not the only factors that led to Melissa’s success.  She took an active role in her employee development, taking advantage of the many opportunities offered through Excellus BCBS including community volunteer opportunities, mentorship, internal and external executive coaching, sponsorship, LinkedIn Learning courses, the Excellus BCBS learning corner, emerging leader courses, and tuition assistance.

Mentorship has been one of Melissa’s most impactful development tools. “Our organization is focused on making sure that employees who have leadership potential have access and connection to leaders through the mentor program,” says Melissa.  Mentorships, whether formal or informal, can be extremely valuable. “I never felt alone because of my mentors. I always had someone who believed in me, and if I didn’t know how to do something, they were there to help.”

Community involvement was another pivotal aspect of Melissa’s professional development. “Having spent my career with Excellus BCBS, I needed to look outside the organization to gain new insights,” explains Melissa. “My ability to join various community boards provided me with that experience without having to leave the company.”  She had individuals who advocated on her behalf in the community and suggested her for board roles.  This is where sponsorship is essential.  Many of us think of sponsorship in terms of supporting an organization or event through funding. But as Melissa explains, in the professional setting, a sponsor is someone in your organization who says, “I’m going to take on the assignment of paving the way for you to be successful by mentioning your name and volunteering you for projects that will help you grow.” 

Sponsorship, mentorship, and coaching are important components of a professional development plan for employees within Excellus BCBS.  While a mentor can provide guidance and advice, a coach will act as your accountability partner, helping you work through challenges. “We encourage our leaders to take on these roles, not only to develop future leaders, but also because they learn so much from the experience themselves,” says Melissa. In addition to books and other learning resources, Melissa continues to gain new knowledge through conversations with her mentees.

If you are taking your first steps toward professional development, Melissa has some advice. “Begin by learning. Invest in your job knowledge to help drive the conversation.  Be present and ask for help, or a contact who can share new information, or a special project to gain additional experience.” 

Excellus BCBS strongly encourages employee development, education, and board and community involvement. Melissa’s journey from intern to executive is an example of what is possible when an employee utilizes the many support tools available within the organization. To learn more about employee benefits offered at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield visit careers.excellusbcbs.com.

Job Opportunities

Are you looking to take the next step in your career and make a difference in others’ lives?

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 ExcellusBCBS.com/Careers.  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 (585) 453-6215 or Jason.Helsdon@excellus.com.

Building tomorrow’s future today

What do I want to be when I grow up? What do I want to study? What are my options? All questions middle and high school students ask themselves. As potential future employees, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is engaging and educating students in grades 7-12 about exploring a career in health care.  

​​​​​​​In March, we sponsored and participated in the virtual Junior Achievement Inspire Career Fair. Filled with interactive exhibits, chat rooms, and video presentations, students in school districts in all Excellus BCBS regions could “chat” with our employees to learn about our company, health care, internship opportunities, and our support of local communities.

​​​​​​​“Our experience was overwhelmingly positive. Students came equipped with thoughtful questions that exemplify a future generation in the workplace that will provide innovative thought and value,” says Patrick McDaniels and Dan Haasis, Talent Acquisition Sourcing Specialists.

Pittsford Central School District Teacher Suzanne Graser says, “bringing the career fair to the classroom is a spectacular idea and gave students valuable tools and career options to explore in a unique and fun setting.” ​​​​​​​

From the impact our employees have volunteering their time with Junior Achievement to the collaboration of our Talent Acquisition, Community Investments and Partnerships, and Corporate Communications and Marketing teams, our efforts to create a path inspiring tomorrow’s leader is a true workforce development partnership. 

“We are proud to serve on the board of directors for the Junior Achievement Program in the Central Upstate New York Greater Syracuse Region and Central Upstate New York Region to support effective teaching and student development programs that prepare young adults for future workforce opportunities and empower them for success,” say Kelli Lasher, Regional Sales Manager and Matt Wagstaff, Strategy, and Corporate Administration Director at Excellus BCBS.

Patrick and Dan are looking forward to future involvement with the program and say, “we are proud to work for a company that values the employee lifecycle from grade school until retirement.”

A great corporate culture / A great place to work

How does a company maintain an engaged and collaborative corporate culture when it no longer has hundreds of employees under the same roof, interacting in the corridors, or chatting over lunch in the cafeteria? That’s a dilemma for every business that’s gone to a flexible work arrangement, but it’s something in which Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has had some success.

“What’s your evidence?” you ask? The health insurer operates across upstate New York, and in one of its regions, it has again been among the top honorees in a competition to recognize the best places to work … a competition based on confidential and voluntary employee surveys conducted by a research firm retained by a weekly business newspaper.

This year, the health plan earned the Silver Award in its size category of 250+ employees, and over the dozen or so years it has participated in this event, it has consistently finished with Gold, Silver, or Bronze.

“Even more gratifying than finishing with a medal each year, is being recognized for maintaining genuine goodwill among our workforce family as we’ve transitioned from an in-person to a home-based model,” says Jim Reed, health plan president and CEO. “If there’s a ‘secret sauce’ to this success, a key ingredient is undoubtedly our program for Volunteer Time Off, or VTO.” 

Each year, full-time employees of Excellus BCBS get eight hours of paid time off to use to volunteer in the community. The hours can be used all at once or spread out over any number of days. Some employees use the time to chaperone their kids’ school outings, while others use their hours with community-based organizations that serve individuals most in need.  

“The benefit to the community is obvious, since every organization could use the occasional extra set of hands,” says Olivia Linke, a regional community affairs director with the health plan, and a point person for finding and coordinating group VTO opportunities for employees. “But on those occasions when we organize a VTO outing to make it easy for our colleagues to use their volunteer hours, the benefit to our corporate culture is beyond anything we can measure.”

Linke describes the teams of employee volunteers as strangers who start their day bound together only by the branded t-shirts they were issued, and who end their volunteer experience as a tight-knit group of friends eager for the next chance to pay it forward in the communities we serve. Often, when the next volunteer opportunity is presented to staff, they use their own personal time because they have exhausted their VTO.

“Our VTO teams represent every department and every level within the company,” says Linke. “It’s not unusual to have new hires who are looking to meet people, painting alongside a corporate vice president at a Habitat for Humanity build site.”

By creating personal connections that span job titles and even regions, the bonds of friendship are strong, and the contributions to corporate culture are lasting. Linke shares the story of a regional sales director who met one of the IT Department’s experts in Microsoft Teams at an event. They struck up a friendship, and then a collaboration, creating a Teams channel and training program for the sales department.

The reality is that you can build a strong corporate culture in this new flexible work environment: Excellus BCBS has a wall full of gold, silver, and bronze medals to prove it! 

How personal development led to professional gains

Is a college degree in your future?  For Juan Munoz, what started as an idea quickly became a reality as the father of three found himself enrolling in college while working full time. Juan began his career with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in 2008 as a help desk analyst.  When he was later promoted to help desk team lead, the wheels started turning. 

Juan was eager to further his career in management and thought a college degree might be important to his advancement.  He turned to the vice president of his department for some advice and the answer to a simple question, “Do you think I need a degree to further my career?”  Familiar with Juan’s skills and abilities, his VP told Juan that, to him, the degree was not necessary; but if Juan wanted to advance throughout the organization, it would definitely be to his advantage to further his education.  Juan quickly heeded his advice and enrolled that week.

His decision was made easier knowing that Excellus BCBS offered tuition assistance.  “Enrolling in the tuition reimbursement program was really easy,” explains Juan. “The company’s internal website had simple instructions to follow.”  He worked with the school to provide information on the classes he was enrolled in and the corresponding costs.  His leaders reviewed this information and signed off indicating their approval.  Once the semester was complete, he would submit his grades.  “The company reimbursed the full cost of my entire undergraduate education,” explains Juan.

But Juan didn’t stop there.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in business management from SUNY Brockport, he enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.  As you can imagine, attending school, working full-time and raising a family of three young children was not easy.  In addition to the support of his wife, Juan received support from his work family as well. “They provided me with the flexibility I needed,” remembers Juan. “This was vital, especially while earning my bachelor’s degree. I often had classes that started at 4pm so I would need to leave work early or come in late depending on my schedule.”  The Executive MBA program took place on the weekends but required one Friday each month devoted to class time. “I was fortunate to have lots of flexibility and understanding from Excellus BCBS. In fact, my letters of recommendation for the MBA program came from within the organization.”

Another employee development benefit he took advantage of was the company mentorship program. This allowed him to build on his leadership skills and seek advice when needed. “The relationship I developed through my mentorship still continues today,” says Juan.

Throughout this process, he not only gained valuable knowledge, but he also experienced career advancement, moving to manager of IT Service Management and then to his current role director of IT Computing Operations Management.  “My education provided me with a great deal of background knowledge of business management. At the end of the day, you need to understand how to lead people and how organizations need to operate,” explains Juan.  Taking the initiative to continue your professional development can set you apart when opportunities for advancement are available. “I think it goes a long way and shows that you are willing to put in the work,” notes Juan.

With three years spent earning his undergraduate degree and an additional two earning his MBA, Juan looks back on the experience with a great sense of accomplishment and would recommend it to others.  “As long as you are willing to dedicate your time to the program and make it a priority in your life, it is a great experience.”  He does caution that managing your time can be a challenge. “Your free time is going to be limited so it is important to plan each part of your day.”

Juan’s story is just one among many who have taken advantage of the tuition assistance program to further their own personal development.  Excellus BCBS greatly values the pursuit of education, understanding that it strengthens the team and fosters innovation. At the start of 2022, a new option was added to the tuition assistance program that allows employees to receive their assistance prior to the start of their class. 

To learn more about tuition reimbursement and other benefits offered at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield visit careers.excellusbcbs.com.

Job Opportunities

Are you looking to take the next step in your career and make a difference in others’ lives?

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 ExcellusBCBS.com/Careers.  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 (585) 453-6215 or Jason.Helsdon@excellus.com.

Onboarding Experience Photo

My Positive Onboarding Experience

It’s normal to have first-day jitters when you start a new job. But what happens when your first day is remote and your onboarding is done virtually? It can be unsettling to start with a new company that has transitioned to a hybrid, mostly remote environment.

This month’s My LifeTime Story comes from new employee, Terry Donato, value- based payment account manager in the Southern Tier region. Terry shares how joining the company six months ago during the pandemic and onboarding remotely was indeed different and a bit challenging, but with the help and guidance from the Human Capital Management (HCM) staff, her leadership, and coworkers, coupled with robust onboarding planning, her transition was a rewarding and smooth experience.

Successful Onboarding Experience

“I have found that one of the hardest things about starting a new job is that each company has a culture of its own and that is sometimes hard to discern or figure out. When I joined Excellus BCBS, it was evident from day one that people in this company cared about each other. It was refreshing during my onboarding trainings and discussions that the importance of our company culture was emphasized and tied back to the 7-block strategy and company mission and goals. It was apparent early on that the staff and leadership “walked the talk” and that helped foster my sense of inclusion from the get-go,” said Terry.

Southern Tier Activities Club (STAC)

Terry also credits the regional Southern Tier Activities Club (STAC) with getting her acclimated and involved with staff activities and community volunteer events.

STAC is comprised of Southern Tier staff members that meet monthly to help plan events or activities to keep staff engaged, boost employee morale and welcome new staff members to the region.

“I joined the STAC group right away and it was a great way for me to connect with local employees in my region while helping to plan and attend some fun events. The first event that I attended in person was a group outing at the Iron Kettle Pumpkin Farm in October. I was able to meet most of the Southern Tier staff members and enjoy some fall fun events that even included a hayride!” said Terry.

Getting involved with local company sponsored events also helped Terry get acclimated with the company.

“I volunteered at the Greater Binghamton Bridge Run event in September at the Mirabito Baseball Stadium in Binghamton. I was aware of the event but had never

volunteered at it before. I helped work at a booth and gave out logo items to those attending that day. It was a fun opportunity for me to build camaraderie with colleagues and allowed me to help represent Excellus BCBS in the community,” Terry added.

My LifeTime Story is a feature each month that highlights employees’ personal accounts of how their lives have been enriched by our culture and our values.

Caring for Our Customers

Our Customer Care Advocates are often the first point of contact for our members and consistently demonstrate our corporate value of “Passionately Serving Our Customers.” They have the power to make an impact and change people’s lives, and they do. In return, the work they do and members they help make a lasting impression on them.

Maryanne Todd and Peggy Crist, both Customer Care Advocates, share how members touched their lives. Both say their work makes them proud to work for a company that cares about its people, members and community.

Maryanne Todd, Customer Care Advocate

“I have always been in the servicing area and really came to love assisting people over the phones. I love speaking to people, hearing their issues and being a problem solver. I really enjoy interacting with our members. I recently had a call from a member. He had several questions about his account and really needed me to explain in detail each of his questions.

The call lasted a better part of 35 minutes. Just before he hung-up he stated that he really appreciated the professionalism and the time I took to go over his questions in such detail that he was able to understand it. He stated I made his entire weekend and really thanked me for being such a nice professional customer service rep.

I’m not sharing this for “kudos” but to show my passion for my job and our members. Health Insurance is very important and very confusing when you don’t work in the field day after day. I feel like I made a real difference for a member and educated him. This is what I enjoy about my job!!!

Peggy Crist, Customer Care Advocate

“I received a call from a member who had recently been diagnosed with a chronic condition.  She needed to see how much her treatments and medicines were going to cost.  She was scared. I was the first person she told about her diagnosis.  We talked about her life and her family. We cried together. Then I looked into her medications. With much relief to both of us they were all covered with minimal costs.  She thanked me for “being her angel” that day. I still think about her.”

“Passionately serving our members is part of our customer care organization’s D.N.A.,” said Alex Levi, vice president Customer Care for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.  “We aim to provide an experience for our members that is low effort, worry free and full of compassion. Our members have a significant impact on our advocates as they help navigate the health care system, often in very challenging circumstances.”

Job Opportunities

Are you looking to take the next step in your career and make a difference in other’s lives?

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 ExcellusBCBS.com/Careers.  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 (585) 453-6215 or Jason.Helsdon@excellus.com

Healthy Snacking Tips from a Football Party Veteran

Watching the big game can be grueling when you’ve got a super-sized buffet to celebrate.

But you can approach kickoff with a solid game plan to help you avoid getting sacked by too many fatty barbecue wings or ill-advised slices of calorie-laden pie:

  1. Before you start the bash, have a small, healthy snack such as an apple, yogurt or a handful of nuts. If you’re hungry when you start the game day snacks, your willpower will go ‘wide right.’
  2. Set up a salad bar for a super-sized bowl of produce and more. The possibilities are endless and include mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, carrots, red onions, broccoli, mini peppers, radishes, chick peas, cooked marinated chicken, roasted vegetables, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, orange slices and feta cheese. Make a salad dressing with olive oil and your favorite vinegar. Experiment with spices such as oregano, crushed red pepper, turmeric and curry powder.
  3. For something different make a cauliflower “steak” or “wings”. Roast chickpeas or kale for a crunchy, fun food.
  4. Baked tortilla chips make just as good a base for nachos as their greasy fried counterparts. Stack them high with shredded lettuce, beans, fresh avocado, diced tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro. If you’re adding ground beef, use the kind labeled “90 percent lean,” and be sure to drain away the fat.
  5. Looking for a healthy, but sweet snack? Try cookie dough hummus. I promise – it’s tasty! The sweetness of the peanut butter, maple syrup, and chocolate chips hides the fact that this is a bean dip! Click on the video below for the recipe.
  6. Another tip is to first take a 30-second food time out to assess all the choices on the game day spread before deciding on what you really want to nibble on. Then, move away from the table or walk around. If you stay next to the food, you’re more likely to overeat.

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