Picture of Chad Tooke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, visit ExcellusMedicare.com.

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Using development tools to grow from intern to executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job Opportunities

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

We have the right fit for you. Positions are available in many departments including Customer Care, Operational Excellence, Marketing and Sales, Information Technology, and more. Check us out at ExcellusBCBS.com/Careers.  Get to know our people and our values, and grow your relationship with us.  For more information, reach out to Director of Talent Acquisition, Jason Helsdon, at (585) 453-6215 or Jason.Helsdon@excellus.com.

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! 

Onboarding Experience Photo

My Positive Onboarding Experience

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

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

Successful Onboarding Experience

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

Southern Tier Activities Club (STAC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthy Snacking Tips from a Football Party Veteran

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

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

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

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

Woman sitting at laptop

Volunteering Virtually and a Fulfilling New Hobby

Grateful to work for a company that gives employees one paid volunteer day per year, I was straining to find a virtual opportunity that was meaningful to me before the year ended and the generosity was lost.

I had almost given up hope when I stumbled on a topic that I value – history! The Smithsonian Transcription Center depends on volunteers to make their collections more accessible. Transcription turns handwritten, typed, and audio recorded materials into searchable and readable resources.

If you like history, treasure hunting, or learning something new, working with The Smithsonian Transcription Center may be a fun virtual volunteer opportunity for you too!

Smithsonian Transcription Center website

The Day Begins

Most of the historical documents are written in cursive and are faded, which makes reading them difficult. Transcribing them makes them discoverable online and readable for anyone, including individuals who depend on technology for text-to-speech conversion.

So, on Friday, December 11, I created an account with the Smithsonian to begin my volunteer work. I spent the first hour reading all the training materials and transcription requirements. There is no expectation to completely transcribe an entire document alone; volunteers can transcribe a new document or continue the work another volunteer has started. Once the document is finished, it’s submitted for review before it’s published.

A Chance To Leave My Mark on History

I got to work reading about the various projects I could select from, and then chose to begin with the Freedmen’s Bureau. As the Civil War was ending, President Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress wanted to help formerly enslaved individuals make the transition to freedom and citizenship. As a result, in March of 1865, The Freedmen Bureau was formed. Transcribing these records is important to me because it makes them accessible for anyone researching their family history and expands our knowledge of the experience of Black Americans during the post-Civil War era.

The Report of Schools for Freedmen document

The time passed quickly, and it was nighttime before I knew it. I checked my activity history to see how much I’d done. In seven hours, I had supported three projects by transcribing ten pages.

Transcribing rows and columns of the was the most tedious task, but deciphering the 19th century handwritten letters took a lot of patience and problem solving. Even though President Andrew Johnson had the nicest penmanship of all the documents I worked with, I couldn’t quite distinguish between his capital “I” and “J.” Thankfully it’s a collaborative process and another volunteer helped to decode the text.

Deciphering a document from President Andrew Johnson

Discovery of a Local Hidden Treasure

One of the most exciting discoveries recently completed by The Smithsonian Transcription Center was an antislavery newspaper, The North Star, published in Rochester, N.Y. by Frederick Douglass. Included in the 1848 issue is a letter from Douglass to his former enslaver titled, “To My Old Master,” in which he explains his intentions as a runaway, recounts his life in freedom, and signs off “I am your fellow man but not your slave.”

The Frederick Douglass discovery!

Success For the Project … and My Soul

While the main goal of this volunteer opportunity is to transcribe a document, half the fun comes from learning and the excitement of overcoming small challenges as I develop my skills. Aside from being the first person to read forgotten documents and getting that feeling of finding hidden treasure, making my discoveries accessible to others is even more rewarding.

My new virtual volunteer experience has become a hobby and I hope one day I too will contribute to a famous discovery.

To see more discoveries by The Smithsonian Transcription Center, follow them on Twitter @TranscribeSI.

Girl brushing her teeth

Expert Q&A: How Has Dentistry Been Impacted By COVID-19?

Our expert:  Dr. William Zugner has been a clinical peer review consultant for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield for more than six years. He is a past president of New York State’s 7 District Dental Society. He is a Fellow in the American College of Dentists and the International College of Dentists as well as a Member of the Pierre Fauchard Academy. Dr Zugner maintains a private practice in Webster, N.Y. and has for 20 years.

How has the pandemic been impacting the health of our teeth?

(Dr. Zugner) Since the start of the pandemic, one issue within my own practice that I have seen a concerning increase in has been patients presenting with jaw and muscle pain and tooth sensitivity/pain from clenching and grinding due to increased stress.

If left untreated, damage such as fractured/cracked teeth and musculoskeletal disorders can occur. The sooner treatment is initiated, the easier it is to break the habit.  As always, I recommend to my patients to continue taking good care of your teeth at home and to follow through with all recommended treatments by your dentist.

How have precautions at the dentist’s office changed?

It is true that since the start of the pandemic, the administering of dental care has changed, but not as much as you think. Dentistry has always followed certain precautions that other parts of healthcare haven’t, because historically, the exposure in dentistry has always been high. Universal precautions, like wearing a mask and gloves, were introduced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1985, mostly in response to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. The profession has adhered to these requirements, and to this day the dental operatory is one of the safest places where healthcare is administered.

For example, between each patient, every surface is wiped and sterilized. Additionally, all instruments are immediately removed, cleaned and sterilized. Anything which is deemed single patient use is disposed of and replaced. Moreover, operatories are not set up or prepped for the next patient until right before the appointment. The doctor and all staff change PPE between each patient, and whenever soiled. These are all standard protocols and have not changed in recent times, thus securing a safe environment for both patients and clinicians.

Where might patients notice a difference when visiting the dentist now?

The changes that have occurred in response to the pandemic include enhanced patient and clinician screenings prior to and upon entering the office. Masks are always being worn by everyone in the office, excluding the patient during treatment. All patients and employees are encouraged to stay home if they feel ill. Also, during certain procedures, specialized masks are being worn by those who provide the treatment and are at a higher risk of exposure.

What would you tell a patient who is weighing the decision to visit the dentist during the pandemic?

One must consider the harm that is caused when treatment is delayed. On routine appointments, dentists screen for not only issues with the teeth, but also thoroughly examine supporting structures and assess for any pathology of the head and neck. Routine care is essential in the proper maintenance of one’s health and to allow for early diagnosis of problems.