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

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

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


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

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

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!