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.”
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.”
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.