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25 Years | 25 Stories of NAVREF
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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 Fiscal Year 2017, NAVREF will be promoting 25 stories from our members, friends, and stakeholders recounting our unique heritage, culture, and spirit.  You can look forward to 2 recollections each month culminating on September 10th in Las Vegas where we will host our 25th Annual NAVREF Conference.  Thank you for your support of NAVREF’s vision of a nation in which veterans receive the finest care based on innovative research and education.

Our Second Story: A CRADO Perspective

Reflections on the NPC and NAVREF
Dr. Timothy O'Leary
Former VA Chief Research and Development Officer

In my 12 years in ORD, I occasionally thought that the NPCs were the bane of VA research.  The few times someone in an NPC absconded with funds or otherwise behaved badly, tended to take up a lot of time dealing with higher-ups in VA and in the political system.  NAVREF, of course, worked with the Non-profit Program Office (NPPO) in ORD to improve training of non-profit program personnel, but as one works to “idiot-proof” systems to insure integrity, “mother nature” is breeding better idiots!  At the same time, of course, the nonprofits were immensely facilitating VA research by serving as fiscal agents for nearly 200 million dollars annually of research, accepting drug company donations, partnering with VA and industry to commercialize VA intellectual property, and helping researchers deal with a frequently dysfunctional personnel system by providing highly qualified scientific support through the IPA mechanism.  Indeed, the NPCs were critical in the execution of many of the VA Cooperative Studies Program clinical trials, and the support of the Boston VA Research Institute (BVARI) was critical to the early success of the Million Veteran Program (MVP) through its support of the Massachusetts Epidemiology Research and Information Center (MAVERIC), while other nonprofits have been essential to enabling enrollment at many other MVP sites.  Viewed objectively, the contributions of the NPCs to VA research far exceeded (in importance) the negatives.

I was not always happy with NAVREF.  Many readers will know that I strongly advocated for the creation of a central NPC, modeled after the Henry M Jackson Foundation or the American Registry of Pathology.  This was successfully opposed by NAVREF, since many NPCs believed that it would siphon resources away from the non-profits.  Though one of my primary intents was to have an organization with statutory authority to noncompetitively enter into contracts with VA (and I had no desire to siphon resources from individual NPCs), our legislative initiatives were unsuccessful.   NAVREF was very effective at representing VA nonprofits in the department, with the administration, and on the Hill.

I was thus surprised in 2015 when several members of the NAVREF board of directors asked to meet with me about the central nonprofit concept.  I was stunned when they asked if this was not a role that could, in large part, be played by NAVREF; I had never considered the possibility, and as the discussion went on, it became clear that NAVREF could become a powerful force in supporting Veteran-centric research by helping to represent groups of NPCs in negotiations with research partners, such as pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers.  Such a role would unquestionably benefit the NPC’s, industry and, most importantly, Veterans, by reducing the number of negotiations for the industry partners and providing a single point of representation for a large VA footprint.   The NAVREF Board, it seemed, had defined a new role for NAVREF that met most of my objectives for a central NPC – without the need for legislation creating it.

Looking at what NAVREF has done since I retired as Chief R&D Officer, I am astounded at the speed at which NAVREF and the new CEO, Rick Starrs, have moved to implement the vision articulated by the Board during our discussions.  Through such efforts as representing the VA NPCs at the Medical Research and Materiel Command’s Medical Product Research and Development Vendor Day, facilitating clinical studies such as those featured on page 9 of the October 28, 2016 NAVREF newsletter, and gaining free membership for all the NPCs in the Society for Clinical Research Sites, NAVREF has taken on significantly increased importance as an advocate and facilitator for VA research, and a significantly expanding role that will facilitate dramatically greater importance for the VA NPCs in advancing the health of our Veterans. 

Tim O’Leary
(retired Chief R&D Officer and Veteran, USPHS Commissioned Corps)
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