On the morning of October 24th, the National Association of Veterans’ Research and Education Foundations (NAVREF) honored its first three Champions of Veterans Health. The three lawmakers lead the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees (SVAC and HVAC).
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT),ranking member of the SVAC, stressed the importance of medical research in advancing the care of veterans. Service members return home with cutting edge wounds, he said, “so we need cutting edge research to take care of them” across both physical and mental wounds. He also praised NAVREF for pushing Congress to “do the right thing” and keep pushing the VA to also do the right thing.
Rep. Brownley (D-CA) was recognized not only for her work as chair of the HVAC Health Subcommittee but also for standing up the new Task Force on Women Veterans. She noted that the VA has been at the forefront of medical research for more than 90 years. Their discoveries have returned “enormous benefit” not only to veterans but also to society as a whole.
Brownley praised NAVREF for its work with others to bring access to life-saving clinical trials to veterans at more VA facilities. She promised that the HVAC intends to continue its work to ensure the VA remains at the forefront of medical research. The VA must constantly improve to become not only the largest but also the best health care system in the country. “The veterans deserve nothing less,” Brownley noted in conclusion.
Rep. Roe (R-TN), honored for his past work as chair and current post as ranking member of the HVAC, was unable to accept the award in person. However, in brief video remarks, the Member said the key of VA medical research is the help it brings to patients both inside and outside the Department.
VA Deputy Under Secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks Carolyn Clancy, MD, also addressed the gathering. She noted the VA does “amazing work in research for veterans.” However, she added ruefully, the Department is not as amazing in getting the word out.
A wide variety of people are important to supporting the VA’s work. “Only through partnerships” can they become a force multiplier, said Clancy. The VA used to think enrolling veterans into clinical trials was not its job. Clancy is “thrilled” that has changed, and the VA realizes that including veterans is “hugely, hugely important.”
Clancy also thanked Congress for its support in various improvements in how veterans receive care. She promised Rep. Brownley the Department is “making a lot of efforts on taking women veterans’ needs and care to a new level.” A top priority is reinforcing more of a culture of respect from male veterans. She noted that she first came to the VA because of the level of research in women’s health care, and that is only increasing and improving. Clancy added that VA researchers are in the position to constantly get feedback from women veterans, and implement those findings quickly.
Veterans themselves are “vital partners” to the VA’s research program, said Clancy. This population has an ongoing drive to serve their country. She pointed to the high participation rates in the Million Veteran Program (MVP), which many view as a way of continuing to give back.
Clancy pointed out that only about 2% of industry-sponsored clinical trials are available at VA medical centers. This “is not even good enough to be unacceptable,” she said, “We need to do a lot better.” Her office has created the Navigate Program to help veterans get into cancer trials. The NAVREF-directed Access to Clinical Trials for Veterans (ACT for Veterans) program is a multi-year effort she fully supports. A recent summit focused on actual deliverables, rather than topics of research. Clancy said the summit participants examined existing barriers to veteran participation and how to overcome them. The most important thing is to turn high quality research into actual care for veterans.
Clancy spoke briefly on how the MISSION Act is bringing the VA’s health care system into closer cooperation with community providers. They are also focused on ensuring that the implementation of the new Cerner electronic health record system goes smoothly and continues to support the delivery of not only health care but also the continuation of research.
Clancy also discussed the challenges involved in caring for veterans living in rural and remote areas. “Frankly,” she said, “this is a challenge for everyone in health care, and no one has stepped up enough.” The VA is in a good position to reach rural residents, given that about a third of enrolled veterans live in those parts of the country. The Department has invested a great deal in telehealth and other virtual care treatment modalities. She highlighted the new use of the Atlas pod (which creates a secure space for facilitating telehealth visits), noting “it is very cool” that veterans do not have to travel long distances to receive care from specialists as a result.
NAVREF CEO Rick Starrs echoed the other speakers in talking about the complexity of caring for veterans, within an expensive and even confusing environment. Within the veterans’ health industrial complex, he said, research is too often overlooked. As mentioned by others, veterans do not have enough access to clinical trials in VA hospitals, which the ACT for Veterans initiative is working to address.The new accelerator fund aims to shorten the timeline to success, he said, calling for others to partner with NAVREF in accomplishing these goals