WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin supports expanding his department's caregiver benefits to families of veterans of all eras, and thinks the move may be far less costly than most critics expect.

In testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee earlier this week, Shulkin said he believes the current restrictions on the caregiver program — which limit many benefits solely to families of post-9/11 veterans — need to be updated.

"I do believe it needs to be for all veterans," he said, "particularly our older veterans who want to stay at home, and then maybe they wouldn't have to leave their home and into an institution."

He said department officials have begun a review of the costs and procedures for expanding the program, and will formally approach lawmakers with a plan in the months to come.

Currently, VA caregiver programs provide a monthly stipend, travel expenses, access to health insurance, mental health services, training and respite care for designated caregivers of injured or infirm veterans.

But when Congress authorized those services in 2010, they made the the majority them only available to caregivers of post-9/11 veterans. Researchers estimate that covers only about one-fifth of the 5.5 million family members providing home care for veterans.  

Senate lawmakers included the caregiver expansion in legislation last year that passed out of committee but stalled before the full chamber. That failure was due in large part to concerns from critics and House lawmakers who called the plan too costly, with an estimated expense topping $10 billion in the next five years.

Shulkin estimated the anticipated cost at closer to $4 billion, but also said that doesn’t take into account other savings the expanded benefit could have.

"I believe that's not an accurate reflection on the true cost because I believe we are going to save money by not institutionalizing people," he said.

Even a lower cost may not be enough to push the expansion through Congress. While President Trump has promised an increase in the fiscal 2018 VA budget, members of Congress in recent months have warned that the department’s budget — which has nearly quadrupled since 2001 — has grown at a concerning rate.

Shulkin did not give a timeline for when VA officials will present a new legislative proposal to Congress on the issue.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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