Changing the stigma around disability

When she began her career in 2017 as an intern in safety net and individual market sales at the Health Plan, Kaitlin Hawkins-Rusch couldn’t foresee how involved she would become in diversity, equity, and inclusion and how it would impact not only her professional life, but her personal life as well.

As an intern, Kaitlin observed that discussions around diversity often focused on visible differences.   Reflecting on her own personal experience with a family member, she wondered if there was room to expand the definition of diversity to include characteristics that may not be outwardly visible.  Kaitlin expressed her curiosity to a senior leader who told her about AVID (Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities), a new Employee Resource Group that was forming.

She was very interested.  Having a close family member with autism, Kaitlin was eager to learn more about how to support someone with a disability.  Autism can often be referred to as an “invisible” or “non-apparent” disability.  According to Disability:IN “many disabilities, such as mental illnesses, learning and attention issues, some physical illnesses, neurodiversity, and many other disabilities are not apparent.”  For some individuals on the autism spectrum, the challenges they face may not always be apparent but still impact their daily lives. For Kaitlin, the situation was more complex as her family member did not acknowledge their diagnoses.  Seeking to gain a greater understanding of how to support individuals with disabilities, including her family member, Kaitlin engaged with AVID during the group’s launch in 2018.

The mission of AVID is to create awareness and understanding of disabilities and their impacts in order to promote an inclusive culture across the organization. The group aspires to engage its membership, and the organization as a whole, in developing and identifying ways they can impact the organization and their communities.  All Health Plan employees are welcome to become members of AVID and the group is designed to support and advocate for all disabilities.  They serve as a resource to employees on disability-related topics and issues and provide forums for discussion and learning that can facilitate change on behalf of employees.

In 2019, Kaitlin transitioned from an intern to a full-time employee in the Human Resources Department and became more involved in the AVID Employee Resource Group, serving as a co-chair for the past 3 years. “I love being part of it,” explains Kaitlin. “It makes me feel like I have a chance internally and, in our communities, to advocate for something that doesn’t always get awareness.”  She explained that belonging to the employee resource group provides an opportunity to make a difference and help people feel more valued.  Everyone in the group comes together with the desire to learn.

“We’ve started to branch into different areas such as intersectionality between disabilities and other aspects of an individual’s identity, the unique challenges they face and what we can do in our organization to help,” says Kaitlin. She notes that the group is intentional about their journey of inclusion. “Disability inclusion isn’t specifically about disabilities but about accommodating everyone’s needs,” notes Kaitlin.  The group continues to examine the definition of disability and how it can be more encompassing. “We are exploring the connection between mental health and disability so that we can bridge the gaps and increase our ability to support more people and change the stigma around disability.”

Kaitlin points out that AVID, as well as the many other Employee Resources Groups the Health Plan has, is open to anyone within the organization who is interested in joining.  “We have individuals from our Member Care department who belong to AVID so that they can apply what they learn to support our members better,” explains Kaitlin.  As a company sponsored extension of our organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Employee Resource Groups strive to create a safe and welcoming space for everyone.

The AVID Employee Resource Group helps lead the organization in recognizing National Disability Employments Awareness Month, World Down Syndrome Day, Autism Awareness Day, Deaf History Month, and more.  The group has organized various speakers and panel discussion on topics related to disability inclusion and conducted a month-long session called Lifetime of Signing, teaching the basics of ASL and sharing information on deaf culture.

This year, Kaitlin took her involvement with disability inclusion a step further and provided support, from data collection to project management, for the Disability Equality Index submission. As a result of this collaborative effort, the Health Plan was named to the Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion after receiving a top score of 100 percent on the 2022 Disability Equality Index (DEI), a national benchmarking survey by Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“My involvement with AVID and learning more about autism and the disability space has allowed me to be more aware of my family member’s needs and understanding alternative ways to communicate and connect,” Kaitlin explains. “The increase in my general understanding of neurodiversity has impacted so many of my relationships. I feel like I’m more able to help others in my family communicate and think differently.”

To learn more about how we embrace diversity at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield visit our careers page.

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  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

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:

Putting my health at the top of the list

Putting our health and wellbeing at the top of the priority list can sometimes be a challenge.  We often devote so much of our time and energy caring for others that our own wellbeing can end up last on the “to do” list.  This was the experience of Jennifer Maszczak, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield claims examiner.  In her late teens and early 20’s, Jennifer made her health a priority, but after she got married and started a family, maintaining a healthy lifestyle took a backseat to other responsibilities.  Over the years, Jennifer became less active and experienced some unwanted weight gain.

One weekend in 2020, Jennifer was feeling sick.  Her discomfort progressed quickly to severe abdominal pain.  Recognizing this was more than common stomach bug, she went directly to the Emergency Department of her local hospital.  There, she underwent a variety of test including a colonoscopy which uncovered a large tumor that was completely blocking her intestine.  “The doctors informed me that the tumor had been growing for over 6 years,” explains Jennifer.  She was diagnosed with colon cancer and emergency surgery was needed to remove part of her colon.  The surgery was successful in removing the cancer and Jennifer began her journey of recovery.

While a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and recovery are extremely challenging, Jennifer took hold of this moment and used it as inspiration to reprioritize. “It got me to think, I need to be healthier and start exercising,” says Jennifer.  In the spring of 2021, she started on the path to a healthier lifestyle by joining some of the many virtual fitness classes offered to employees by Excellus BCBS.  The exercise classes, in addition to a weight loss meal plan, allowed her to shed 60 pounds of unwanted weight in 1 year.

“The virtual fitness classes really pushed me to start exercising again,” explains Jennifer.  She participates in a variety of classes, such as circuit training and intervals, conducted by fellow Health Plan employees.  “The instructors are very motivational and upbeat, they are a great bunch of people,” remarks Jennifer. The virtual fitness classes were a perfect fit since she prefers to exercise in the comfort and privacy of her home. “I felt comfortable because I didn’t need to be on camera,” she explains. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to in person fitness classes, especially during the pandemic.”

When she’s not taking part in a fitness class, Jennifer enjoys taking walks with her dogs. Her husband and daughter often join her which provides some extra motivation to keep going.  “I want to be healthy so I can be around to enjoy my family.”

Jennifer’s goal to get back to a more active and healthier lifestyle has not only helped her physically but mentally as well.  “It definitely helps my mental state,” explains Jennifer. “I think because I exercise in the middle of the day, I definitely see an improvement. It gives me more energy.”

As a health plan, Excellus BCBS places a strong focus not only on the health of their members and community but on their employees as well.  “We spend our weekdays caring for each other, our members, and our communities,” said Amanda Shanahan, Excellus BCBS wellbeing manager. “Some of us are also caring for family members and friends. To support others, we need support ourselves.” Because of this, “we care about our wellbeing” has been established as one of the organization’s employee values and behaviors, empowering every employee to incorporate wellbeing into their work and personal lives each day.  

“If we only focus on our own wellbeing when there’s time, there might never be time,” explains Amanda. “Intentionally building wellbeing into your day will help you meet your body’s needs. It could be taking 5-minutes for a personal chat with a co-worker, stepping away for a nourishing lunch, standing and stretching, pausing to take a deep breath, or taking a 15-minute exercise break. Find what works for you!”

Excellus BCBS is proud to offer its employees a variety of wellbeing options including monthly wellbeing challenges and webinars, virtual fitness classes, mindfulness sessions, nutrition sessions, the Calm app, and Guidance Resources – a free, confidential program including counseling, legal and financial guidance.

To learn more about the comprehensive wellness programs offered at Excellus BCBS visit These programs help to create a healthy and motivated workforce, making Excellus BCBS a great place to work!

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  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

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.

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