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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CDC says Black Americans targeted by makers of menthol cigarettes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed new rules to ban the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes. But with the dangers of smoking so well-known, why the current focus on these specific tobacco products?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the tobacco industry is targeting Black Americans with menthol cigarette marketing through advertising, giveaways, special pricing, lifestyle branding, and event sponsorships of rap, hip-hop and jazz artists. The goal is to get Black young people addicted so they become customers for life.

“Nobody inhales cigarette smoke for the first time and thinks it feels good,” says Gina Cuyler, MD, FACP, vice president of health equity and community investments at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “That’s why tobacco companies seek to take the harsh edge off that initial experience so first-timers will continue to sample the product and get hooked.” The nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive and adding menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke feel easier to inhale.

Menthol is a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants. According to the CDC, some research shows that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes because menthol can change the way the brain registers the sensations of taste and pain.

So how successful are the marketing efforts to the Black Americans? More than 70 percent of Black young people ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and Black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

In 2019 and 2020, sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes made up 37 percent of all cigarette sales in the U.S.—the highest proportion in 55 years.

The CDC estimates 40 percent of excess deaths due to menthol cigarette smoking in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018 were Black Americans, despite Black Americans making up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Black Americans ages 18 to 49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than white Americans, and Black Americans ages 35 to 64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than white Americans.

“Projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show the death rate for Black Americans is generally higher than white Americans for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, and diabetes,” says Cuyler. “Smoking contributes to each of those conditions.”

Evidence from other countries supports the public health benefits of banning menthol cigarettes. After a 2017 law prohibiting their sale was implemented in Ontario, Canada, adults who smoked menthol cigarettes reported high rates of quit attempts and quit successes.

“We need to educate the public, especially people of color, about this effort by tobacco companies to create nicotine addicts in our Black communities,” advises Cuyler. “All young people deserve to live tobacco-free lives!”

The New York State Smokers’ Quitline offers proven resources to help people who want to quit smoking. Call 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487) or go online to www.nysmokefree.com.

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.

Perennial runner Bob Bluey gears up for the 45th Boilermaker

With thousands of running races held each year in the United States, Robert (Bob) Bluey has no trouble choosing his favorite, the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, NY.  At the age of 72, Bob is part of a very special group of runners who have participated in every Boilermaker race since its inception in 1978. This long-time Mohawk Valley resident, grandfather of three, and proud Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Medicare member currently lives with his wife in New York Mills.

Bob Bluey, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Medicare member, runs up the Culver Ave hill as he trains for the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, NY. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

His love of running began in 1975, when at the age of 25 he decided to make his health a priority. “I attended a class about healthy lifestyles put on by the American Heart Association,” Bob recalls. “I took a 5 question heart health quiz and I had one of the highest [risk] scores in the class. I needed to change my lifestyle and become healthier.”  Bob’s mother had suffered from heart disease throughout his childhood, even spending time in the hospital. “As a kid it was scary,” remembers Bob.  Heart disease eventually took her life at the age of 62. “The instructor of the class talked about the importance of exercise especially if you have a family history of heart disease. It was a wake-up call.”

When putting his plan in place to get healthy, he started slowly with an easy run around the block. At that time running was just starting to become mainstream and the first sneakers designed specifically for running were introduced. “There weren’t a lot of running events to do at that time,” recalls Bob.  Then in 1978 he heard about a race happening in Utica. “The main reason I decided to run the first Boilermaker was because they were giving out free beer,” says Bob. “Every other race, you would get water, but the Boilermaker promised free beer!” 

The 15K distance was going to be a challenge for Bob, but his very good running friend Joe encouraged him to participate in some development runs and run a 15K race in Rome to prepare.  On race day Bob was ready. He remembers the crowd of around 800 people feeling enormous. “There were runners from Buffalo, Albany, New York City, and Canada. It was a big deal,” recalls Bob. “Finishing the race was pretty amazing. When I got to the end there were all of these people. Everyone stayed and talked about the race. It was great!”

Bob incorporates stretching into his fitness routine. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

As Bob gears up for his 45th race, he still carries with him the same enthusiasm for running.  “I try to get in a run at least 3 days a week,” says Bob. He usually does a 3.5-mile loop and starts adding miles to his runs in June in preparation for the Boilermaker, working his way up to 10 miles. In addition to running, Bob rounds out his fitness routine with 20 to 30 minutes of stretching and strength training on non-running days. “I’m so much healthier because of running,” says Bob. “Most people my age take some type of medication. The only pill I take is a multi-vitamin.”  Despite being active and maintaining a healthy weight, he understands his hereditary risk of heart disease can’t be changed. “Knowing that running has kept my body in shape, motivates me to keep going,” explains Bob.  He also notices the impact running has on his mental health. “I think being physically fit makes your mental health the best it can be,” says Bob.  He maintains a positive attitude about life and looks forward to opportunities to be active.

Having run every Boilermaker since the beginning, Bob has a perspective on the race that few people have.  He has seen it transform and grow over the years in a multitude of ways. “The first race was very laid back,” remembers Bob. “Cars were allowed on the course and there wasn’t much security even though there was a professional runner, Ric Rojas, in the race.”  Bob remembers a major turning point when Olympian and marathon record holder William (Bill) Rogers participated in the race in 1984. “It turned into a big-time race with professional runners from around the world,” says Bob. “The fact that the best in the world were coming in and you got to run with them was amazing! That doesn’t happen in any other sport.  I could never play baseball with Yankee Aaron Judge, but I could run with the pros.” What is even more amazing to Bob is after the race is over the professional runners come out in front of the stage and talk with people. “They are part of the comradery. It is a really nice thing that we’ve got here that no one else has,” says Bob.

He recalls seeing the crowd for the race grow bigger each year as well.  “Now there are people everywhere. I love seeing the crowd on the stretch coming down Champlain Avenue and onto Whitesboro Street.”

Personally, for Bob the meaning of the race has also evolved.  “Many of the people I’ve known since my early days of the race, mentors in running, friends who would take me to the starting line, have passed on,” says Bob.  “Now my family is what makes the race special.  I have relatives that come from all over for the race.”  He has family that joins him from as far away as California. It has turned into a weekend long family reunion with as many as 50 relatives showing up to run the iconic race. “They love it! We begin celebrating on Friday with different events – dinners, baseball games, the kid’s run. The whole family is here for the weekend,” explains Bob.

Passing on his passion for running is important. “My sons, nephews, grandkids, everyone sees that running is a healthy way of life,” explains Bob. “Even my older brother, who for the longest time thought I was insane, started to run races.”

Some may wonder what keeps Bob coming back to the Boilermaker year after year. Having run four marathons, including the New York City Marathon and the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C., Bob still thinks the Boilermaker is the best race around. “Over the years, I’ve seen people I work with and friends along the course in different places,” says Bob.  “I probably don’t go a half mile without seeing someone I know waving to me. I’ll see friends I worked with 30 years ago, and my family waiting for me on the Parkway.”  And he has no plans to stop. “It gets harder all the time, but I use my health as my motivation.”

Bob is looking forward to the 45th Boilermaker 15K Road Race presented by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield on July 10. “I can’t wait to get to the starting line, get back to normal, and see thousands of people.”

Bob chats with Excellus BCBS Regional President Eve Van de Wal at the iconic finish line of the Boilermaker 15K Road Race. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

“We are excited to continue our support of the Boilermaker as the presenting sponsor of the 15K road race and cheer on runners like Bob,” says Eve Van de Wal, Excellus BCBS Utica regional president.  “This event showcases the spirit of our community, as athletes from around the world and in our neighborhoods gather together to enjoy this one-of-a-kind race. We are inspired everyday by Excellus BCBS members like Bob to further our mission of improving the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve. We can’t wait to be there at the finish line!”

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!