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Veterans Are Under-Represented in Clinical Studies. NAVREF Is Working to Change That.

Andrew Segerman
December 18, 2020
Rick Starrs, CEO of NAVREF
Rick Starrs, CEO of NAVREF

When it comes to clinical research trials, America leads the world in providing patients with access to the latest, state-of-the-art care. However, an under-represented population in clinical studies might surprise you: veterans. To correct this shortfall, the National Association of Veterans’ Research and Education Foundations (NAVREF) joined with VA’s Office of Research and Development to start the Access to Clinical Trials for Veterans initiative.

We sat down with Rick Starrs, the CEO of NAVREF, to learn more about this important project and understand what it will take to ensure veterans receive the care they need.

BIO: Can you explain the NAVREF’s mission so the average reader can better understand what you’re trying to achieve?

Rick Starrs: NAVREF is the national member association for the 80 VA-affiliated research and education foundations that administer externally-partnered research activities for VA medical centers. Our mission is to advance the success of these foundations in supporting Veteran health and one of the ways we work to fulfill our mission is by bringing more research opportunities--especially industry-sponsored clinical trials--to VA hospitals and the veterans who they serve.   

Additionally, NAVREF helps pharmaceutical and biomedical firms navigate VA and serves as a matchmaker connecting companies with VA investigators and study sites. 

BIO: Can you describe the biggest challenges facing veterans and their ability to participate in clinical trials?

Rick Starrs: For a number of reasons, veterans are an underserved population for industry-sponsored clinical studies. Chief among these is that VA has never established a coordinated, standardized, enterprise-wide system for conducting externally sponsored research.   The procedures followed, people involved, and associated timelines varied from one site to the next leading to inefficiency and unpredictability which deterred study sponsors from engaging VA.  Furthermore, of those clinical trials that do consider VA, they are often not designed to consider a population of Veterans who often have multiple co-morbidities or other conditions that would exclude them from participation.

BIO: What specifically is NAVREF’s role in ensuring veterans are better represented in clinical trials?

Rick Starrs: NAVREF is working closely with VA’s Office of Research & Development and industry stakeholders on the Access to Clinical Trials (ACT) for Veterans ( initiative.  A critical charge of this initiative is to implement an efficient, enterprise-wide system that leverages the many strengths of VA’s healthcare system. Currently, our efforts are focused on designing a streamlined process to initiate externally sponsored studies at VA medical centers.  NAVREF is also reaching out to industry to educate pharmaceutical sponsors and biomedical firms on the capabilities of the VA research enterprise to support multi-site studies.  Our next step is to focus on improving recruitment and retention of study participants.

BIO: What are some changes to public policy your organization supports that would benefit our nation’s veterans?

Rick Starrs: NAVREF advocates for robust resourcing of the VA research program including increased medical research appropriations and improved research infrastructure such as upgraded facilities and enhanced information technology. We pursue increased federal spending on medical research and endorse policy efforts to advance scientific innovation, foster collaboration, or promote the benefits of health research.

BIO: How can partnerships with industry help in advancing NAVREF’s important mission?

Rick Starrs: Industry partnerships and collaboration are critical to the ACT initiative. We sought industry perspective to identify shortfalls and obstacles to working with VA and we continue to seek industry expertise to advise us on best practices and approaches to initiating externally sponsored clinical studies. We also seek industry resources to assist with developing the people, training, and infrastructure that will accelerate implementation of the initiative’s goals. 

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