Dr. Melissa O’Dell set to join UNMC faculty in July

Dr. Melissa O’Dell will join the UNMC Department of Psychiatry faculty this summer.

Dr. O’Dell, who graduated from Omaha Central High School in 2003, said she’s thrilled that an opportunity arose for her and her young family to stay in her hometown.

“It’s home, and I love it. I had no desire to leave Omaha,” Dr. O’Dell said. “I feel lucky to find a job that’s such a good fit at UNMC.”

Dr. O’Dell will join UNMC as an instructor and will split her time between Poynter Hall and Charles Drew Health Center. 

“My area of interest is serious mental illness,” Dr. O’Dell said. “At some point, I hope to start a first-episode psychosis team and continue to develop services across the spectrum of care for people suffering from psychotic disorders. It’s a terribly underserved population. These patients often need a lot of services besides medication in order to achieve meaningful recovery.”

Dr. O’Dell has previously worked St. Anthony’s Regional Hospital in Carroll. Prior to medical school, she worked as a case manager for adults with serious mental illnesses, and she has enjoyed her time as part of Community Alliance’s ACT teams.

Dr. O’Dell joins Dr. Steven Ayers, Dr. Andrew Baumgartner, Dr. Dana Raml and Dr. Mark Thompson as fourth-year UNMC-Creighton psychiatry residents who accepted faculty and clinical positions with UNMC.

“It’s a big honor, and we’re all excited to call each other colleagues going forward,” Dr. O’Dell said. “For a lot of people when you go from your training to your life as an attending there seems to be a sense of isolation and a sense that you’re losing your support system. I feel fortunate that I don’t have to experience that. The transition should be a lot easier with my previous relationship with my new colleagues and the faculty at UNMC.”

Dr. O’Dell will join the UNMC faculty on July 31, 2019.

Dr. Balasanova awarded scholarship to attend National Leadership Forum alongside country’s healthcare giants

For her extensive contributions to advocacy for patients with substance use and mental illness, Dr. Balasanova was recently awarded a scholarship to attend the CADCA’s 29th Annual National Leadership Forum and SAMHSA’s Prevention Day from Feb 4-7, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Dr. Balasanova was joined by approximately 2,900 substance use advocates from throughout the country as well as a congressional panel of speakers.

Dr. Balasanova lent her expertise in a number of personalized breakout sessions for national organizations that guide policy and research for substance use prevention throughout the U.S. In addition to participating in a number of workshops and panels, Dr. Balasanova had an opportunity to learn from the nation’s leading experts on substance use policy including Dr. Jerome M. Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States; HHS Secretary Alex A. Azar; ONDCP Director Jim Carroll; Acting Administrator of the DEA Uttam Dhillon; SAMHSA Assistant Secretary for Mental Health Elinore McCance-Katz and NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow.

“I am honored to have had a chance to spend several days with our nation’s most influential leaders for our mutual aim of bettering the health of our communities and reducing suffering related to substance use,” said Balasanova. “I have come back reenergized with the latest science and with new strategies to tackle substance use here in Nebraska.”

The mission of CADCA (Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America) is to help strengthen and maintain safe, healthy and drug-free communities globally. This is accomplished by providing technical assistance and training, public policy advocacy, media strategies and marketing programs, training and special events. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services charged with improving the quality and availability of treatment and rehabilitative services for substance use and mental illness.

Alëna A. Balasanova, M.D., FAPA, is a board-certified Psychiatrist with subspecialty board certification in Addiction Medicine.

Social workers plan Personal Hygiene Drive

In March, UNMC Department of Psychiatry social workers are collecting hygiene items as a way to help their patients and celebrate National Professional Social Work Month.

As part of the Personal Hygiene Drive, people can leave hygiene products in drop boxes on the third and fifth floor of Poynter Hall (corner of Dewey Street and 42nd Street). Some of the needed personal items include toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soap, shavers, shaving cream, toilet paper, and feminine hygiene products.

“We really wanted to provide support for our patients with their ADLs (activities of daily living),” said UNMC social worker Necol Arens. “We got together and, as a group, decided to do something special to hallmark the needs of our patients.”

Once items are collected, Arens said several of the items will be collected in a package. Patients can come to the front desk on the third or fifth floor and ask for a hygiene packet.

Social worker Tiffany True said everyone wanted to find a way to help the community during National Professional Social Work Month.

UNMC psychiatrist wants to make getting prescriptions a lot easier

Dr. Stephen Salzbrenner discusses his new Breezmed program with the UNMC Department of Psychiatry Leadership Team. Dr. Salzbrenner recently received a $75,000 prototype grant to create the software, which is designed to help patients, providers and pharmacies deal with prior authorization forms.

UNMC Department of Psychiatry Assistant Professor Dr. Stephen Salzbrenner wants to make getting prescriptions a lot easier and a lot quicker.

Dr. Salzbrenner, with help from health software company H4 Technology, created Breezmed, a program which solves many of the problems patients deal with when it comes to prior authorizations.  For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it is a process insurance companies use to make sure doctors and other providers are practicing safe prescribing habits.  The downside is that the current process is time consuming and burdensome for nurses and prescribers, such as doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

“It’s called Breezmed because I want it to be a breeze,” Dr. Salzbrenner said. “I want doctors to enjoy their job, kick up their feet, sip some coffee and know there’s a solution out there.”

Dr. Salzbrenner has worked on Breezmed for almost three years and borrowed $75,000 to get the project off the ground. Last month, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development approved a Prototype grant for $75,000 to assist Breezmed, LLC with the development of a software tool to automate and improve medication selection and prior authorization. The grant could increase to $150,000 if additional research and development are needed.

The goal of Breezmed is to speed up the process of getting insurance providers to approve prescriptions.

“When I prescribe a medicine, it’s common now for the patient to go to the pharmacy, but not receive their medicine right away.  Instead, they get sent back home,” Dr. Salzbrenner said. “Then the pharmacy talks to the insurance company. The insurance company sends us paperwork or an electronic form to complete. I usually have a stack of papers and several emails waiting for me. We have to fill out the paperwork or forms and then send it back to the insurance company.  Then, the insurance company lets the pharmacy know that the medication is approved; the pharmacy calls the patient to let them know to come back to the pharmacy to get the medicine, and then the patient has to make another trip to the pharmacy to get the medication. It’s a big mess.”

If a patient arrives at a pharmacy and hears that his or her insurance provider has not approved the treatment, many patients won’t come back. The American Medical Association (AMA) says 22 percent of patients abandon treatment, due to prior authorization issues.

“This is a huge public health issue because people are sick when they could be on medication and getting better,” Dr. Salzbrenner said. “Breezmed aims to be proactive and streamline the process through automation.  Ultimately, the goal is to have the medication authorized by insurance the first time the patient arrives at the pharmacy, which will lower the number of medication abandonment cases.”

Prior authorization forms also cause problems for the providers. In a 2018 survey, the AMA said doctors or their staff spent between one and two working days each week completing prior authorization forms, and 36 percent of clinics have staff whose sole job is to work on prior authorization forms. Dr. Salzbrenner said he would like to roll out the software in the area of behavioral health first since that is his clinical specialty.

“We will attack one diagnosis at a time and one insurer at a time, like ADHD for Medicaid,” he said. “Then, we can move on to depression for Medicaid, schizophrenia for Medicaid, and so forth…”

Dr. Salzbrenner welcomes any feedback on the prior authorization process so that he can address current issues of concern within the UNMC / Nebraska Medicine community.  Please email him at

ACGME approves new psychiatry residency program at UNMC

Daniel Gih, M.D., and Jeana Benton, M.D., will lead the new residency program within the UNMC Department of Psychiatry as program director and assistant program director.

On February 18, 2019, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) approved the UNMC Department of Psychiatry’s application to start a psychiatry residency program. The psychiatry residents will join the department in July 2020.

A resident is a physician – usually a recent medical school graduate – who spends three to six years gaining required, specialized training in a specific area of medicine.

UNMC Department of Psychiatry Chair, Dr. Howard Liu said the goal is to design a new residency program to serve Nebraska’s needs for decades to come.

“I am absolutely thrilled by the historic opportunity to launch a new adult psychiatry residency program at UNMC,” Dr. Liu said. “As a former state workforce director, I know that the number of psychiatrists in Nebraska is not keeping pace with the need for access.  Thanks to Dr. Daniel Gih, Dr. Marley Doyle, Dr. Jeana Benton and our interprofessional steering committee for their vision in building this new curriculum! And I am very grateful to our partners at UNMC, Nebraska Medicine, Douglas County, the VA Hospital, the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, the Lasting Hope Recovery Center, Great Plains Regional Medical Center and many other organizations for their support!”

UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold, M.D., said he has big goals for UNMC’s newest residency program.

“The goal is to offer one of the very best psychiatry residency training programs in the country,” Dr. Gold said. “This is the latest in a series of steps designed to help us provide high-quality mental health programs to better serve the people and communities of our state.”

Residents will work with UNMC and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine, a well-established academic health system in the region with 809 licensed beds at its two hospitals, more than 1,000 physicians, and more than forty specialty and primary care clinics in Omaha and surrounding areas.

Nebraska Medicine CEO James Linder, M.D., said the new residency will help keep psychiatrists in Nebraska.

“Nebraska has tremendous needs for behavioral health services,” Dr. Linder said. “The new UNMC psychiatric residency program allows our medical students to train in Nebraska, helping meet needs while training, then becoming practicing clinicians in Nebraska communities.  Nebraska Medicine is delighted to help support graduate medical education.”

Dr. Gih, the residency’s program director, said the new training program would help with the current shortage of psychiatrists in Nebraska by providing another residency in the Omaha area. Currently, UNMC is affiliated with Creighton University’s residency program for psychiatrists. The partnership began in 1987. By starting its program, Dr. Gih said UNMC now has the independence to build an innovative and creative educational experience.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our academic medical center to re-imagine what psychiatry training can and should be while better serving the mental health needs of Nebraska and the region,” Dr. Gih said. “We want students interested in our training philosophy (W.I.S.E. = Wellness, Interprofessional education, Subspecialty clinics, and Experiential psychotherapy training) and supportive culture. The department has embarked on exciting changes and expansion. The residency program is an important facet of the overall department.”

Dr. Doyle served co-chair of the Graduate Medical Education (GME) Steering Committee and was actively involved in the visioning and execution of the new residency program application. Last month, she was named Director of the BHECN, a state workforce agency, whose goal is to increase the number of behavioral health providers in Nebraska.

“As the new director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, I look forward to supporting both the new UNMC program and the existing Creighton program to build our new psychiatry workforce,” Dr. Doyle said.

The UNMC Department of Psychiatry residency program will begin recruiting potential residents this summer and will start interviewing applicants this fall.










Spotlight: Mark Aksamit

Mark Aksamit joined the Department of Psychiatry last fall, and starting on Feb. 14, he will join the faculty at the College of Allied Health Professions as an assistant professor in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program.

Why did you choose psychiatry?
My passion for psychiatry started when I was in undergrad and majored in psychology. I really found a love for helping the underserved during my undergraduate career. I saw a tremendous need for mental health. When I was seven, I was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. I thought I would go into endocrinology, but seeing that need for mental healthcare in college, I felt my skills would be better used in treatments like motivational interviewing. I found myself wanting to work in the field where I could combine pharmacology with psychotherapy.

Do you see more physician assistants joining the department?

That’s a big push we are going to work toward right now. Not only do I want to help bring in more PAs, I also want to work with the psychiatry rotations. It all starts with having a good rotation. That’s where I started gaining a lot more passion for the field of psychiatry, and my outstanding rotation during my PA program helped me fall in love with the field of psychiatry. My plan is not only to serve as a liaison between the two programs but also help build a strong rotation for PA students and nurse practitioners that rotate through here.

What do you see as the future of PAs in the Department of Psychiatry?
I believe in three years, we would have a really good multi-disciplinary team set up in the different specialties and sub-specialties. I want to see a physician assistant working with an M.D., working with a nurse practitioner, working with social workers, all across the board to make sure we get the best outcomes for our patients. The more voices we have in every specialty, the better care we will be able to offer.

What are some of your hobbies?
I absolutely love sports. I love spending time with my wife and family. I also love playing cards. We play a lot of pinochle and pitch, which are two games that got passed down from my grandparents.

1st Roccaforte Citizenship Awards handed out at holiday party

Front row (left to right) William H. Roccaforte Citizenship Award recipients Brigette Vaughan, Angie Kuehn, Debbie Randolph and Liz Wiese. Back row: Dr. Soonjo Hwang, Dr. Steven Wengel, Maggie Milner, Dr. Howard Liu and Jeanne Lincoln.

On Jan. 19, the Department of Psychiatry honored five employees with the William H. Roccaforte Citizenship Award.

The award, which was handed out during the department’s holiday party, was named after the longtime UNMC Professor, whom Chair Howard Liu said embodied both humility and daily service. The Citizenship Award goes to a faculty member, staff or trainee who exemplifies a spirit of service, extraordinary teamwork and the passion for going above and beyond each day in service of our mission.

Child Psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Edwards; Department of Psychiatry Research Lead Brigette Vaughan, APRN; Medical Receptionists Angie Kuehn and Debbie Randolph and Office Assistant Liz Wiese were the first recipients of the award.

All five received a $100 bookstore allowance and a clear, cube trophy, nicknamed “The Rock,” after Dr. Roccaforte.

“What a surprising honor this it,” Dr. Roccaforte said. “I have truly enjoyed the activities that I have been a part of since retiring. The department has so many wonderful people to work with that it’s been fun for me to continue to be involved.”

The recipients’ names are listed on a plaque, hanging under “The Eagle” on the fourth floor of Poynter Hall. Five people will be added to the plaque when the awards are handed out at the 2020 holiday party.

Dr. William H. Roccaforte holds “The Rock,” an award named in his honor, next to a plaque naming each recipient.
Dr. Ryan Edwards received the William H. Roccaforte Citizenship Award.

New program connects community with behavioral health services

Pictured from left to right are David Cates, PhD, director, Behavioral Health; Celeste Akers, lead BHC navigator; Howard Liu, MD, chair of Psychiatry; Yevette Henderson, BHC navigator; Donald Roman, BHC navigator and Maggie Milner, manager, Psychiatry clinic.

Nebraska Medicine Behavioral Health and the UNMC Department of Psychiatry have started a new program, Behavioral Health Connection. The new program is up and running and is designed to help medical center patients and other members of the Omaha-Council Bluffs community connect with necessary behavioral health and substance use disorder services.

Behavioral Health Connection offers one main call-in number, 402-836-9292, which callers can talk to one of the three-member BHC staff and get referrals to resources they need or be connected to relevant services in the community – services that may include medical, psychiatric, substance use disorders, psychological, psychopharmacological, social, educational, peer support and housing.

“We can provide information and help on how to fill out things connected to social service or benefits programs, such as mental health support programs, Medicaid or disability,” says Celeste Akers, lead BHC navigator. “We may offer help getting referrals to a certain program, or callers can make an appointment to get help with paperwork they may need to file to access certain benefits or services.”

The program will even offer information on transportation options and information on financial assistance to get prescription medication.

“We have been working with a generous donor for the past year and are excited to see this program come to fruition,” says David Cates, Ph.D., director, Behavioral Health. “We are hoping to improve behavioral health in our community by removing common obstacles to care and making it easier for individuals with behavioral health disorders and their families to connect to available resources.”

The goal of the privately funded program is to address lack of familiarity with available mental health and social services, poor coordination of care among providers, lack of transportation to needed services and difficulty obtaining medications.

“We are fortunate to have assembled a highly experienced and motivated team to launch our new Behavioral Health Connection program,” says Dr. Cates. “We will be tracking a variety of process and outcome measures, including the number and types of services referred, whether or not clients connected to those services, client ZIP codes, etc., and working with our donor to refine and hopefully expand the program.”