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.

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.

Through tough times and happy moments, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) was there for me

Sometimes we all need an outlet, a safe space where we can share our feelings without judgement. Whether we are dealing with situations big or small, having someone to listen and provide tools to guide us through can make all the difference. Lynn Wesley Burton, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Rochester Regional Communications Manager, found her outlet through GuidanceResources®, an employee benefit that provides Excellus BlueCross BlueShield employees and members of their household with a free Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through ComPsych®. The program offers counseling, legal and financial consultation, work-life assistance, and crisis intervention services.

Connecting with a counselor

Lynn’s experience with EAP began when her father passed away in 2007. At the time, she was working at another employer but continued using the service as an Excellus BCBS employee. “When I started working at Excellus BCBS, it was one of the first things I looked at to see if it was offered as part of our benefits package, and it was,” shares Lynn. Getting started with EAP was as easy as a phone call to speak with a GuidanceConsultant℠ – a counselor who collects some general information and talks with you about your needs. “They asked me what I was experiencing, what I was looking for, and what I felt comfortable with,” remembers Lynn. She explained her current situation to the GuidanceConsultant℠ and that she would prefer a female counselor that she could visit in person. By the end of the conversation, she had the name of three potential counselors and an authorization number.

Fortunately for Lynn, she clicked with the first counselor she contacted. “Right off the bat, I knew she was somebody that I wanted to work with and who was good for me,” explains Lynn. Flexibility was also high on the priority list for Lynn, so finding a counselor who could work around her busy work schedule was extremely helpful. She found the experience so valuable that she continues to see her counselor today.

Healing from grief and loss

Throughout the years, Lynn turned to her counselor to help deal with grief and loss, first with the death of her father, and years later her mother and brother. “Many of the benefits for me came from having someone who was neutral, who was not family, and who was not one of my best friends, in order to give me the tools to look at things differently, to look at things objectively,” says Lynn. “If there were times that I just wanted to sit and cry, I did.” Through counseling, she worked on finding her new normal after experiencing loss. She focused on self-care so she could handle her day-to-day activities, her job and be there for her family. “This was the most important thing I could do for myself to maintain my mental and physical wellbeing,” explains Lynn.

Help for the happy times

Lynn on her wedding day.

While we may think of seeking out counseling for traumatic situations like the loss of a loved one, Lynn reminds us that mental health support can be useful in a variety of circumstances. “One important thing that I would share is a lot of people go to counseling for stressful situations or unfortunate incidents that happen in their life, and they need some help. I also needed help with some fantastic things that were happening in my life and being able to manage those.” For Lynn this included starting her new job at Excellus BCBS and getting engaged, all within a two-week period. Coming from a previous role working in television news where she was connected to work continuously, adjusting appropriately to her new job was a priority. “My wellbeing and work-life balance was more important than being connected all the time. It was something I had to learn, and it was something I never really understood was possible until I started at Excellus BCBS,” she explains. With all the excitement of a new job and planning a wedding, her counselor helped to remind Lynn to live in the moment, enjoy the process, and not forget the important things including herself. “No matter what is happening in your life, good or bad, to have someone else sit and listen and support you and help you talk through things is extremely beneficial for your wellbeing.”

Don’t hesitate to make your mental health a priority

Lynn ziplining in the Dominican Republic.

One of the most valuable things Lynn has learned throughout her journey is how to adapt and adjust to situations using the tools around her. This includes writing in a journal, exercising regularly, and focusing on healthy eating habits.  

If you are considering using the EAP or seeking out other mental health support but have been hesitant to take that next step, Lynn offers this advice, “Your mental health and wellbeing are first and foremost, you are important, and you matter. There is nothing selfish about taking advantage of a benefit that could help you in the long run.”

For Lynn, having this benefit available through her employer was vital. It meant that she had the support she needed and didn’t have to look for help on her own. “If this benefit wasn’t available, I don’t know that I would have done it on my own because it is a lot of work. Having the support made all the difference.”

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefit for Excellus BCBS employees

The Employee Assistance Program is provided by ComPsych® Corporation and offers free short-term counseling to Excellus BCBS employees and their dependents. Some of the reasons to contact EAP include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed balancing work and family demand
  • Stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Grief and loss
  • Child or elder care concerns
  • Legal or financial questions
  • Substance use concerns for you or a dependent

To learn more about the EAP and other wellness programs offered to Excellus BCBS employees, visit the Excellus BCBS careers site.

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 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.

Finding beauty and compassion volunteering at Francis House

Partnerships with community-based organizations are vital to the mission of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. We have been proud to support the Francis House through event sponsorship and volunteerism since 2017 as they fill a local need for end-of-life care for the Central New York community. Many Excellus BCBS employees have volunteered with Francis House on their own and as an employee team through the Central New York United Way Day of Caring.

Michele Luysterborghs, Compliance Program Administrator, shares her story of volunteering

Michele Luysterborghs, Excellus BCBS compliance program administrator

Francis House is a place that pretty much looks like your typical home on a residential street in Syracuse, New York. But beyond its doors, it is a place that provides anyone who enters the warm comforts of home and family.

The Francis House mission is to “provide a home and extended family to persons with terminal illnesses so they can die with dignity surrounded by the unconditional love of God.” When volunteering there, you help to create an atmosphere where people in need can feel like part of a family. There is “no place like home,” but when that isn’t an option, there is Francis House.

Getting involved

I became involved with Francis House through my cousin, when I shadowed her for a shift in one of its kitchens. I left that four-hour shift with my heart overflowing, knowing I got back much more than I gave.  After that, I was determined to help more. I took the onboarding classes for volunteers and earned my gold pin. I know each and every time that I volunteer, I make a difference in the people whom I am lucky to serve that day. When I returned to volunteer after COVID-19, one of the nurses greeted me with a smile and said, “Welcome home.”

By being a volunteer at Francis House, I am proud knowing I am helping its founder, the late Sister Kathleen Osbelt, to keep her vision from more than 30 years ago alive: to provide a place of unconditional love and acceptance for individuals who may not have another place to go, or do have another place to go but chose Francis House to make it easier on their loved ones.

Helping patients – and their families

As its mission states, Francis House is not only for end-of-life-care patients in need of help, but also for the patients’ families and friends who love and support them. Francis House is an invaluable and caring place for all people because it provides a caring and warm environment for people who are experiencing already difficult situations. Now, after volunteering for several years, I have witnessed Francis House’s beauty firsthand on many occasions.

There is so much unconditional love, support, beauty, compassion, and empathy there. The residents are at their most vulnerable state and yet, during their weakest hours, their true strength shines. Their courage is impressive. The smiles and the stories told within those walls are remarkable. As a volunteer, you do not know a patient’s condition unless they or their loved ones happen to share. You are part of their journey of emotional and physical acceptance of where they are at end of life. When you treat that person with acceptance, they know they matter.

Life stories

I have heard so many beautiful stories; I once made a secret family fudge recipe with a resident and she passed the recipe on to me; I have shared in many holiday traditions; I have put together puzzles and played cards; I have baked my heart out, always receiving comments like, “It smells so good in here, what are you baking?” and served one-too-many ice cream sundaes. I have also shared in the residents’ deepest joys, life adventures, life tips, and triumphs, and have seen a handful of them in their darkest hours.

As a volunteer, you see glimpses of their life stories in their spouses, kids, grandkids, pets or other loved ones who come and visit. The photos on their walls or their favorite treasures from home often provide inspiration to spark a conversation. Being present and compassionate with a resident brings them peace, even if just for a moment. You are brought into their lives in so many ways. You hear their life hopes, dreams and deepest fears.

Giving back

When my father-in-law was at end of life, he entered hospice on a Friday and left us less than two days later. While he was there, I remember the pure grace and compassion the volunteers and staff showed to him and our family. I remember the comfort I felt. It never left me. I am happy to be able to give back to our community in this way. My heart is always so full after I volunteer a shift at this beautiful and amazing place. Francis House has given me some memories and moments of friendship that I will hold in my heart forever.

Excellus BCBS values volunteerism

The value of volunteerism at Excellus BCBS runs deep. It is connected to the organization’s mission, localism and employee values and behaviors. “As an employee, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to use my volunteer time off serving the people in need at Francis House. I am proud to work for a company that allows us to give back to our communities in this way,” shares Michele.  Every January, each Excellus BCBS employee is provided with eight hours of volunteer time off to use throughout the year to support their communities. 

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 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.

Stay Interviews Help to Increase Trust and Transparency

“I started doing stay interviews in 2018, so it has been five years! I have probably conducted around 40 or 50 of them myself. The idea was originally shared with my team by our HR Business Partner, and we all loved that it was a simple way to have transparent conversations, increase trust with our employees, and take action that could improve engagement and retention, so we began rolling them out consistently across our teams,” stated Susie Hume, Vice President, HR Strategic Business Partnerships.

You may have noticed that you have been hearing a lot about “stay interviews” lately and how they have become very popular with our leadership for several multi-faceted reasons.

Valuable Feedback

Stay interviews allows our leadership to gather valuable insights and feedback directly from our employees. By conducting these interviews, we can identify any issues or concerns that might be impacting employee satisfaction and engagement. Stay interviews also provide an opportunity for employees to express their thoughts, concerns, and aspirations directly to their managers or directors. This open and honest communication helps build trust and strengthens the employee-manager relationship.

“Sometimes these conversations open the need to have increased development or EDP conversations with employees, other times they have helped us get to the root of a challenge our employees are experiencing and then follow-up with actions to remove them, where possible. In one instance, I had an employee who was becoming increasingly disengaged and through our conversation I realized that the issue was a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities. We held a facilitated session with another team to resolve this and the level of engagement and productivity increased considerably. These conversations should be happening organically, but sometimes they don’t unless we create the structure and invitation to share this feedback regularly,” Susie added.

Employee Benefit

Stay interviews really offer an avenue for employees to have their voices heard and their needs addressed within our organization. By participating in stay interviews, employees can help shape their work environment to better suit their needs and preferences. When leaders genuinely listen and act upon employee feedback, it goes a long way to create a positive and supportive work environment.

Stay interviews also offer a safe space for employees to address any challenges or concerns they may be facing. Whether it’s related to workload, workplace culture, or personal circumstances, discussing these issues can lead to finding solutions and improving the overall work experience.

Overall, stay interviews empower employees, foster better relationships with their leadership, provide growth opportunities, and contribute to a happier and more engaged workforce.

Leading the way to employee development

“In my experience, when you have a supportive leadership team and you know what you want to do, your leadership makes sure learning and development is a priority,” explains Joyce Williams, Excellus BCBS Lead Operations Coordinator. Joyce has engaged in several learning and development opportunities, including a variety of LinkedIn Learning courses and Dale Carnegie Skills for Success.

What is employee development?

Employee development can be thought of as a partnership between employee and employer that assists the employee in increasing their skills and knowledge.  This partnership is beneficial for everyone. According to an article from Post University, the benefits of investing in employee development include attracting top talent, improving employee performance, increasing engagement, preparing employees for future leadership positions, increasing job satisfaction, and improving the skills and knowledge of the workforce.

Including LinkedIn learning in your development plan

Joyce incorporates learning and development opportunities into her Employee Development Plan.  She’s taken advantage of the LinkedIn Learning courses offered by Excellus BCBS through their employee learning website and has taken several courses focused on increasing her confidence as a leader, as well as emotional intelligence. “I find it beneficial that the organization offers these courses,” explains Joyce. “Employees can go at their own pace and there is material that relates to all work areas.” When deciding which courses to take, Joyce turns to her leader for guidance and uses the recommendations offered by the program, paying close attention to course ratings. “I find that the courses help with my professional growth and development,” she shares. “There’s something for every level both personally and professionally within the courses.”

Diving into Dale Carnegie

Joyce took her development even further by participating in the Dale Carnegie program. The cost of this course is completely covered by the organization so there is no out of pocket expense for Excellus BCBS employees to participate. “Other leaders who completed Dale Carnegie told me how it changed them for the better both personally and professionally,” noted Joyce.

A little history

​​​Inspired by his belief in the power of self-improvement, Dale Carnegie founded the program in 1912. It continues to evolve, helping millions of people around the world create positive change and growth.  Over 340 employees from Excellus BCBS have graduated from Dale Carnegie’s Skills for Success, Presentations and/or Leadership Development courses. These courses support the organization’s values and behaviors and enhance participants’ leadership skills.

Beyond the basics

Most participants walk away with so much more than a new set of skills. “Dale Carnegie taught me to keep pushing forward, be attentive, and be positive,” shares Joyce.  For many, it is also a way to establish deeper connections with colleagues. “It enables you to connect with yourself and others on a deeper level.  There are moments of vulnerability and strong support,” Joyce notes, adding that she would recommend the course to others. “It opened my eyes to different perspectives, ways of connecting to others, and how to build upon my leadership skills.”

Leadership support

For Joyce, the support of her leader played a vital role in her development. “My leader has strongly supported me in pursuing these classes and has also made me aware of courses to take that align with my goals,” she explains.  By prioritizing development, incorporating it into her Employee Development Plan (EDP), and seeking support from leadership, Joyce has been able to acquire new skills and advance in her career.

Our commitment to development

Employee development is an important component of the employee experience at Excellus BCBS. It is supported by our organization’s values and behaviors and embedded into our culture.  For more information about employee development opportunities at Excellus BCBS, visit the 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 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.

Maternal Mental Health Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your story

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

Michelle and her daughter – a thriving college student.

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

Melinda and her 3-year-old son.

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

Supporting maternal mental health in our communities

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

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

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

Keep the conversation going

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

More Mental Health Resources:

Neighborhood Haven

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

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

A Place to Go

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

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

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

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

Helping Kids

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

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

Community Partnerships

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

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

Serving the Community

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa

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.