WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials are launching a new center of excellence focused on caregivers, a move that advocates say could significantly boost research and support for families caring for ailing veterans.

“We know how important caregivers are to the veterans community now, and we know they’re going to be even more important 10 and 20 years out,” said Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “This center is going to own the research in this area and a lot of areas that are still undiscovered.”

The center consists of teams of researchers spread across four VA sites in Texas, Florida, Utah and California. Together, the staffers will collect data on caregiver challenges, support service availability and a host of other topics with an eye towards future policy changes designed to improve veterans health care.

Earlier studies by the RAND Corporation have identified more than 5.5 million veteran caregivers across the United States, providing medical and emotional support that would total nearly $14 billion annually.

VA officials do grant monthly stipends and training services to some of those family members, but advocates have said those benefits are greatly overshadowed by the value the caregivers provide.

Schwab said even though groups like his have helped provide significant research on the topic, having federal backing — and focus — on the topic provides more opportunities.

“For example, when we worked with RAND, we identified 10 areas that need further investigation to understand what the community needs,” he said.

“Right now, there’s no evidence-based research on the effects of caregiving on children. Many of these kids end up working as secondary caregivers. What does that mean for them and for the family? That’s the kind of study we need to see get done now.”

The RAND study also estimated that 1.1 million individuals are caring for post–9/11 veterans, a population with different injuries and life expectancy than older generations.

VA officials officially named the center after former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, noting her “significant impact on, and dedication to, military and veteran caregivers.” Along with its advocacy work, her foundation has been a persistent advocate for the creation of a dedicated caregivers research center within VA.

The department already boasts about 20 other research centers, including ones focused on pain management, long-term health care, chronic diseases and mental health.