Excellus BlueCross BlueShield President/CEO-Elect James Reed to Take Lead with Confidence, Competence, and Compassion

By: Tami Scott

When Excellus BlueCross BlueShield President and CEO-elect James Reed discusses his past, present, and future roles with the nonprofit health plan, his response is both competent and instinctive. Having joined the team almost 25 years ago, he is educated in virtually all areas of the organization.

 “I’ve been fortunate over the majority of my career, to have been in positions that have allowed me to interact with our customers (both in the community and in the provider network) on a routine basis,” said Reed, an Elmira native who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Le Moyne College in Syracuse.

Through his participation on the senior leadership team over the last decade, Reed has had the opportunity to regularly engage with employees. This variety of roles has given him an appreciation and understanding of different and unique perspectives.

Reed will succeed long-standing President/CEO Christopher Booth, who is retiring in May 2021. Described by Reed as a “man true to his word,” Reed said his integrity is most admirable.

   “[Booth] cares about the company; he cares about the employees; he cares about the community; and he cares about the mission of our company,” Reed said. “When you couple that with his extremely high integrity, it’s clear to see why he has been a fantastic leader and role model for so many over the past 10 years.”

Company Mission and Culture

Reed is passionate about two vital components of Excellus BCBS: satisfying the mission of the company and maintaining the corporate culture.

“The focus on our mission has been critical to the success of the company,” Reed said. “I believe if we’re taking action in making decisions that we believe will either impact the quality of healthcare, the affordability of healthcare, or improve access to healthcare in our community, then inherently we will be successful as a business.”

Customers, he said, from Medicare members to employer group clients, base their decisions on a company’s reputation, product price, size of the provider network, and brand reputation. Over the last decade, for example, the company prioritized these essentials, which resulted in positioning products competitively in the marketplace and gaining a stronger reputation.

But success isn’t based on one goal alone. It’s also the result of good morale, and Reed plans to continue Booth’s legacy of maintaining a strong company culture where employees are engaged and committed to the organization’s overall health and wellbeing.

“That to me is one of the keys to our overall success, and as I think about turning the page on leadership, the culture has been really one of the most important aspects of our success,” he said. “I want to make sure that we continue to keep growing, improving and working on the culture at Excellus BCBS.”

Community Investment

Headquartered in Rochester, Excellus BCBS has operating sites in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Buffalo, with satellite offices in Binghamton, Elmira, Watertown, and Plattsburgh. As a local, community-based health plan, Excellus BCBS partners with dozens of nonprofits across all regions. It sponsors programs that promote healthy cooking and provide meals to children in low-income areas. It’s the annual presenting sponsor of the nationally renowned Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, which uses its platform to promote year-round programs such as an urban garden and kids’ after-school running programs.

“We live and work within the communities that we serve, and we have historically been very generous with our investments into community-based initiatives,” said Reed, who sits on the board of directors for Centerstate CEO, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and HealtheConnections.

In recent years, Excellus BCBS has deliberately focused on aligning its community investment dollars to the organization’s mission. Reed illustrated this concept by using food banks as an example.

“Obviously we’re in a very unique situation this year with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reed said.  “In our communities, many businesses and therefore, many people, are struggling to get by and food insecurity and access to food is a growing issue.”

As a result, Excellus BCBS distributed $600,000 to support food banks and pantries across its 39-county upstate New York territory.

“The link between food insecurity and overall health is very clear,” he said. “If we’re able to partner with nonprofit organizations in our communities that are doing great and meaningful work across our different territories, and that work aligns to affordability, access and improved quality of healthcare — then that’s a homerun for all of us. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Pandemic Response

The ceaseless goal of first-rate client care has also been exhibited through its comprehensive response to the pandemic. Excellus BCBS expects to spend an unbudgeted amount of at least $162 million, which is being funded through the health plan’s reserves.

Excellus BCBS has responded to the pandemic by taking measures such as increasing reimbursement rates for telehealth; waiving out-of-pockets costs for telehealth; expediting payments of hospital claims and implementing a 20 percent increase in reimbursement for COVID-19 admissions. This, Reed said, is all to reduce the administrative burden on the provider community.

“Leadership wanted to remove any obstacles physicians might have had in providing care to members through virtual services,” he said. “And in terms of our business, we’ve made investments in how we interact with our provider community and what benefits we offer to our members with the intent to make sure there are no barriers, either financial or administrative, that would prevent someone from seeking care to either be tested or to receive treatment should they be infected with the virus.”

In addition to the behind-the-scenes adjustments made during this difficult time, the team uses the company website to inform its members, providers and the public about the latest in news and resources related to the coronavirus through a landing page that includes resources and up-to-date information on coverage.

Another public platform hosted by Excellus BCBS, “A Healthier Upstate,” offers lighter reading on topics including the importance of well-child visits and nutrition. “This has proven to be a valuable tool in getting information out to the community,” said Reed. Contributing writers from throughout Excellus BCBS share their knowledge on www.ahealthierupstate.org regarding trends and tips connected to both remote work and distance learning.

Vision for Future

As Reed begins his role as President/CEO elect, he’s contemplating what the next 10 years might be like. With remarkable statistics behind and beside him, he’s optimistic in gauging a promising future.

“Looking back, a true measure of our success can be seen in the uninsured rate in the Upstate and Central New York communities,” he said.

In 2018, the uninsured rate for Upstate New York was 3.5 percent, the lowest in modern times, and less than half the national rate of 8.9 percent, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.

Additionally, rate requests for 2021 were well below the New York state average for both individuals and small groups for the fourth year in a row.

On August 13, New York state reduced that rate request even further, cutting individual premium by 0.2 percent and giving small group, community-rated products an increase of less than one percent.

“To me, that’s the result of the mission focus on health care affordability,” Reed said. “If 10 years from now we can look back and say that in the communities we serve, we still maintain uninsured rates that are lower than the rest of the country; that we’re still rated as a high-quality health plan; that we are still a nonprofit that is mission-oriented, and focused on our local community; then, to me, that’s the measure of success.”

   James Reed currently resides in Skaneateles with his wife and three children. For more information on Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, visit ExcellusBCBS.com.

Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists Offers Full-Spectrum Spine Surgery

By: Thomas Crocker

At Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists (SOS), a four-physician team of orthopedic surgeons specializing in spine surgery performs the gamut of procedures for neck and back pain, including a variety of outpatient operations at the practice’s
ambulatory surgery center.

In most cases, nonoperative treatments provide sufficient relief from neck or back pain to allow patients to carry out daily functions and enjoy favorite activities. Options include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, chiropractic care, acupuncture, nerve-blocking cortisone injections and physical therapy (PT), which is available from the orthopedics and sports therapy team at SOS. Nonoperative care is also available from one of SOS’ partners in care, New York Spine & Wellness Center.

“PT is a mainstay of spine care and is quite effective at treating most back problems,” says Richard DiStefano, MD, orthopedic surgeon at SOS. “It’s an advantage to have PT in our practice because it’s easy for physicians and therapists to collaborate to tailor therapy for patients.”

Surgical Solutions
When conservative therapies prove ineffective, surgery may be appropriate. Large operations, such as cervical laminectomy, cervical fusion, cervical laminoplasty, and lumbar laminectomy and fusion, typically require hospitalizations of two or more days, and SOS spine surgeons perform these procedures at St. Joseph’s Health and Crouse Health.

Many spine surgeries do not require a hospital stay, and for these, SOS has a dedicated home: Specialists’ One-Day Surgery Center, located at 5801 East Taft Road in North Syracuse. There, surgeons perform anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, lumbar discectomy, and one-level laminectomy. Another outpatient procedure, sacroiliac joint fusion, may provide relief for individuals with sacroiliac joint dysfunction. Requiring just two small incisions in the buttocks, the procedure allows a spine surgeon to solidify the joint with a cage-like implant.

One of the most common procedures that Dr. DiStefano performs at the Specialists’ One-Day Surgery Center is spinal cord stimulator implantation. Spinal cord stimulation uses implanted electrodes and a small generator to deliver mild, pain-relieving electrical impulses to the cervical or lumbar spine. Candidates include individuals for whom back surgery did not provide relief or who have chronic back or leg pain, degenerative spine changes, reflex dystrophy in the foot or knee, or painful neuropathies in the feet or hands, according to Dr. DiStefano.

“Patients undergo a one-week trial using electrodes placed percutaneously and an external battery pack,” Dr. DiStefano says. “If that’s successful, we permanently implant the electrodes in the spine through a small incision in the upper or lower back. The wires are connected to a generator in the buttocks. Patients can adjust the strength of the electrical signal with a remote.”

The variety of outpatient spine procedures available at the Specialists’ One-Day Surgery Center is indicative of the sweeping nature of spine care at SOS.

“Ours is a comprehensive spine program,” Dr. DiStefano says. “We perform procedures on all parts of the spine in inpatient and outpatient settings, and we also offer a wide range of nonsurgical treatments. Patients get all-encompassing care at SOS.”

Telemedicine Appointments Available

Video visits played a crucial role in allowing Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists to continue caring for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine appointments through the SOS Virtual Visit App remains an option for initial and follow-up appointments, as appropriate, for patients who wish to see their orthopedic surgeon from the comfort of home.

History Has Shown the Construction Industry will Endure

By: Earl Hall, Executive Director, Syracuse Builders Exchange

It is early September.  The cool mornings and slight tint of colors in trees illustrate the beginning of change.  It is a timely and expected change, transitioning summer to fall.  The annual upstate New York tradition also means contractors are busy wrapping up projects over the next few months in preparation for the expected change to winter.

Unexpected change is inevitable, but how we as a society and construction industry executives react to uncertain changes can vary.  Although the country is still in the midst of a pandemic, construction industry employers have adapted to new “norms” both in the office and on the construction job site.  What are the new “norms” when bidding a project?  What lessons have been learned about how to bid on projects during a pandemic, and for how long will these new “norms” be in place?  Have contractors and project owners alike done all they can do to mitigate risk and liability exposures, and are those measures adequate protections in the event of unexpected issues?

Over the decades, the construction industry has endured many eras of uncertainty and recessions.  The industry has many wonderful success stories of second and third generation construction companies which have survived similar times.  Lessons have been learned and new best practices have been adopted during each occurrence, so I suspect the current economic and industry turmoil resulting from COVID-19 is no different – except for those who have no experience.

History is a great teacher of delivering the most difficult lessons.  Some examples of recessions in the United States that have led to eventual recoveries and survival of construction contractors include:

The Asian Flu Pandemic lasted from the summer of 1957 through April of 1958.  While the coronavirus originated in China, the Asian Flu originated in Hong Kong.  It ripped through India and Europe and eventually made its way to the United States.  It killed over 1 million people world-wide and initiated a global recession.  In an effort to end the recession, then President Dwight D. Eisenhower convinced congress to pass a stimulus package addressing national infrastructure needs in the Federal Aid Highway Act.  Notice any similarities today?

The Oil Embargo from 1973-1975 resulted in the longest U.S. economic recession since the Great Depression from 1929-1933.  Unemployment reached approximately 8.8% and gas prices soared, increasing the cost of consumer goods and services.  In an effort to end the recession, the Federal Reserve significantly lowered interest rates, which would later lead to high inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Sound familiar?

From July 1981 to November 1982, the U.S. endured yet another oil-related recession when the Iranian Revolution ended and the new regime exported oil at very low prices, keeping gas prices in the U.S. high.  With inflation in the U.S. at an all-time high, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates to 21.5% which then lowered the inflation rate, however, the economy declined by 3.6% over the next 16 months while unemployment soared to over 10%.  Then President Ronald Reagan attacked this problem by reducing taxes and increasing military spending.

The Savings and Loan crisis and Gulf War lead to a recessionary era from July 1990 through March 1991.  This modest recession saw GDP decline to 1.5% while unemployment reached 6.8%.  Although the recession officially ended in 1991, the U.S. experienced 7 consecutive quarters thereafter of very slow growth.

Who could ever forget the short and swift Dot-Com crash in 2001, and the horrific events of September 11, 2001?  During this recession, the Nasdaq fell 75% while the S&P 500 lost 43% between 2001 and 2002.  What lead the U.S. economy out of this recession:  The housing market.  What later initiated the next recession?

From December 2007 to June 2009, the housing market imploded and triggered the Great Recession.  Some of the largest U.S. financial institutions collapsed under the default weight of mortgage-backed securities.  During this time, unemployment rates hit 10.5% and the GDP declined 4.4%.  What did the government do to re-energize the economy?  Congress passed a $1.5 trillion stimulus package.  

What lessons did the construction industry learn during these past recessions and why is history so important to those who are responsible for developing a strategy for 2021?  The circumstances and events we find the U.S. in today, and those in upstate New York, are not unique.  History has proven the construction industry has endured those same challenges we are experiencing today.  And while the politicization of the coronavirus is evident, some pundits have argued the over-reaching of governmental authority has crippled the economy more than the virus itself.  Through it all, the construction industry has learned how to not only endure times of uncertainty but position itself to be stronger when the crisis is over.

People often ask me what I think about the current state of the construction industry in upstate New York.  My answer is the current state of the industry is strong, despite the pandemic and the new “norms” mentioned above that has caused the industry much angst and money.  While 2020 is still in play, I do have concerns for 2021 and 2022 for the reasons mentioned in my prior article about the lack of funding for future public and private projects.  The many regional architects and engineers I speak with share my belief, in that this recession will end when a vaccine is developed and our elected officials in Washington, D.C. pass a meaningful infrastructure stimulus package to address the crumbling infrastructure in our country – but specifically in New York State.

During this time, and while planning for 2021, I would encourage construction industry executives to identify:

  • Means to become more efficient
  • Market segments that provide your company the best return on your investment
  • How to improve the quality of your team
  • How to improve your firm’s information technology
  • Future training and/or equipment needs
  • Other areas to achieve economies of scale

Recessions and market trends come and go.  Those of you who have been in the construction industry long enough know this and have positioned your company to endure the hardship, only to ultimately persevere and prosper in the long run.  What is new about the current environment?  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ability to unilaterally control businesses opening and closing.  Such strict governmental mandates and regulations on businesses is unique in our history, so we have no history lessons to lean on to know how to react when governmental mandates adversely impact businesses and the employees they hire.

In the end, upstate New York’s construction industry and those executives who lead their companies will be resolute.  Perseverance will overcome fear and determination will overcome governmental mandates.  Lessons will be learned from COVID-19 that will resonate for generations. 

The construction industry will lead the way to our regional economic recovery; unfortunately, there will be tumultuous times ahead as I anticipate a very challenging time in 2021.

The Best Defense For Risk Is a Strong Offense

Pierre Morrisseau, CEO, OneGroup

Risk has been around for as long as there have been people on this planet. What’s fascinating is the changing nature of risk. From the risk of becoming dinner for a hungry dinosaur while out hunting to the usual natural risks of meteorites, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods to sophisticated new risks like cyber attacks, risks are evolving right along with our own evolution.

Nowhere is this more evident than business risk. The very function of creating and operating a business is to run headlong into myriad risks while creating new ones. Sometimes, creating risk is even part of the business strategy. Let me explain that.

When businesses take on innovation and opportunity risk, they knowingly put themselves in a position to fail. That same risk can also lead to great reward, as other companies are either to fearful to take the risk or do indeed fail. Similarly, companies that start up or create a new division in a competitive market take on competitive risks that could damage or even kill their current business model. Again, knowingly putting the company at risk opens the door to potentially great success and rewards. The strategy is to identify all the other risks and take steps to reduce, eliminate or use financial tools like insurance to protect them.

During this long-running pandemic, we have been working with our clients and other companies to go on the offensive—to identify risks and accelerate learning to foresee and control risk. One example is our work with local and regional manufacturers. We saw their stress navigating as essential businesses while the virus was marching across the world. Instead of waiting to see how risks would play out—many of which were not yet recognized—we formed and facilitated a roundtable of manufacturers to share what they were seeing, what actions they were taking, and discuss new ways of operating. The results of these weekly ad-hock video calls were more than impressive.

These manufacturers were of every size from a hundred employees to more than 55,000. They openly shared their fears, failures and solutions as well as various vendors for PPE and other services. What would have been an agonizing and drawn out learning curve for each of them resulted in a greatly accelerated process of risk mitigation. While OneGroup was there merely to facilitate and answer any risk management questions, we learned a great deal about the value of openly communicating with others in your industry, even your competitors. When asked after several weeks of meeting every Friday if they would like to continue meeting, they unanimously said they felt they were getting great value out of sharing as well as having made valuable new contacts.

Taking what we learned, we quickly acted to form additional roundtables in other areas including construction and small business while clients asked about doing the same for them.

Interestingly, OneGroup was formed years ago with the vision of assembling hundreds of experts and specialists and developing the skills and technology tools to put them in front of business leaders—virtually—when they need help. The concept was to create a unique business model that would allow us to hire the best people anywhere, dramatically speed our ability to collaborate with each other regardless of geography, and meet clients’ needs without suffering the time and expense of travel, lodging and weather. Little did we know when we were designing our business that we were setting ourselves up to mitigate the risk of a global pandemic on our own operations.

To my peers reading this, I am always available to share what we have learned or to discuss facilitating a roundtable or virtual meetings. We are here to help you go on the offensive when it comes to risk and we believe the best way to do that is to share knowledge openly and freely.