25 Years | 25 Stories of NAVREF
Since 1992, the National Association of Veterans' Research and Education Foundations has worked to support our members to become a source of excellence for VA Research and Development. Over the course of 2017, NAVREF will be promoting 25 stories from our members, friends, and stakeholders recounting our unique heritage, culture, and spirit.
Our Sixteenth Story: Barbara West
First NAVREF Executive Director
July 1992 - January 2013
In the spring of 1992, I was a lobbyist and office manager for Washington Health Advocates, a small lobbying firm on Capitol Hill. During the 10 years I was employed by WHA, I missed work due to illness just once. When I returned to the office, I learned that in addition to my other responsibilities, I had been appointed executive director of an association of VA-affiliated research institutes that did not yet have members, tax exempt status, funds, or any of the infrastructure one would need to run a nonprofit. However, it did have a name – National Association of Veterans’ Research and Education Corporations with the acronym pronounced nav-WRECK. One of my first responsibilities was to file a name change for what came to be known as NAVREF.
The founders—an astute group of VA research administrators comprised primarily of Jeanette Evans-Hamilton (AO Kansas City), Ron Flink (AO Hines), Richard Levine, MD, (ACOS/R Washington, DC) and Nancy Parks (AO Augusta)—envisioned an organization that would interface effectively with VA Headquarters, Congress and other stakeholders on matters related to NPCs; provide education on all aspects of NPC management; and lobby on behalf of increases in the annual appropriation for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research program. Fulfilling these objectives was a daunting challenge that consumed the next twenty years of my professional career and changed my life.
Prior to my appointment, I was familiar with VA research, but not with NPCs. As a result, from my first day as executive director, success depended on support from a succession of extraordinary chairs, board members and NPC executive directors. I was also fortunate that from its inception, VA personnel were supportive of NAVREF and we quickly established what I suspect was an unusually collaborative relationship between a government agency and a private entity.
In retrospect, the easy part of my job was obtaining tax exempt status for NAVREF, setting up a membership database, creating a newsletter, scheduling board meetings and forging relationships with various stakeholders. The much tougher part was responding to the significant challenges that regularly came our way, including:
With much effort, NAVREF ultimately obtained clarity or positive resolutions for each of the above, and over the years, there were many other reasons to celebrate, including:
- An OGC determination that NPCs were not authorized to conduct education and must desist from holding medical education events.
- An NIH decision that NPCs were not appropriate grantee institutions because they were so closely aligned with VA.
- Office of Legal Counsel advice to VA that NPC employees were in fact not protected by the Federal Tort Claims Act.
- An OGC announcement at the April 1, 2005, NAVREF Annual Conference that NPCs must immediately stop executing clinical trial agreements for pharmaceutical and medical device studies; this was not an April Fool’s Day joke.
- An OGC determination that VAMC reimbursements to NPCs for salary and fringes of employees on IPA assignments were in violation of the NPC statute.
- Office of Government Ethics advice to OGC that applying federal conflict of interest rules to employees of private sector organizations was prohibited.
- And then there was “Foodgate,” an IG determination that some NPC expenditures were for meals for VA employees . . . oh, my.
Without doubt, the best part of my job was getting to know and work with amazing people.
- Steady growth in NPC revenues and the support NPCs provide for VA researchers and medical center research and education programs.
- An increasing number of NPCs administering federal grants.
- Three successful initiatives to amend the NPC authorizing statute as a result of strong working relationships with staff and members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs.
- After a year of intense collaboration with VA’s Technology Transfer Program staff and OGC, publication of model CRADAs and completion of the first Master CRADA with Novartis.
- An OMB determination that the Paperwork Reduction Act does apply to VA inquiries of NPCs, giving us a mechanism to formally review and comment on VA drafts of documents applicable to NPCs.
- Providing educational programs on an array of topics that helped NPC staff attain a high level of expertise in human resources and financial management, board governance, grants management and indirect cost rate negotiations, CRADAs, VA rules applicable to NPC employees, and so much more.
Twenty-five years; so many challenges and so many good times. Throughout, we learned, shared and grew together.
- Working with Angela Murakami was a daily pleasure for the eleven years we were together; much credit for NAVREF’s success during my tenure belongs to her, and to this day I remain grateful for her friendship.
- I enjoyed my almost daily conversations with our successive board chairs, each of whom was a superb leader.
- Spending time with the NAVREF board and the board of the host NPC at our quarterly board meetings was a joy and privilege I got to repeat 80 times.
- I came to know and admire the extraordinary individuals who run NPCs, many of whom became friends as well as colleagues. Every phone call was a welcome chance to get to know our members; conducting a Best Practices Consultation was even better – an opportunity to spend several intense days working together.
- I was fortunate to work with other members of the executive committee of the Friends of VA Medical Care and Health Research who generously applied their expertise and skills to our annual efforts to educate legislators and their staff members about the marvels of VA research and to advocate for increased funding – with success most years.
- So many expert VA personnel, particularly in ORD and OGC, took the time to advise and engage with us among their many other responsibilities.
Everyone associated with NAVREF during my tenure and now should take great pride in its many accomplishments. The tradition of NAVREF excellence continues with the current NPC executive directors as well as the NAVREF board and leadership. Congratulations for making NPCs and NAVREF a success, and I wish everyone even greater success during NAVREF’s next 25 years.