WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials on Monday announced former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole will chair the department’s new family and caregiver advisory committee, formed in response to problems with support programs earlier this year.

The committee, which features a mix of veterans and military caregivers, is charged with advocating for improvements to VA care and benefits services. In a statement, Dole called the work “critical” for the veterans community.

“Military families, caregivers, and survivors are truly our nation’s hidden heroes, and make great sacrifices each and every day on behalf of their loved ones, so we must do more to support them on their journey,” she said.

Last spring, VA conducted a nine-week review of the department’s caregiver program after an NPR report revealed dozens of regional medical centers were cutting back on the number of families receiving caregiver benefits, possibly against program rules.

More than 20,000 individuals are currently enrolled in the department’s caregivers stipend program, which awards payouts of several thousand dollars a month to family members of severely injured post-9/11 veterans providing full-time caregiving duties.

In July, VA officials ended the review promising better communication and outreach to families involved. Shulkin has also publicly discussed the possibility of extending the caregiver stipend to veterans of other war generations, but doing so will likely require congressional action.

In a statement Monday, Shulkin said his department “is committed to the delivery of highest quality care and support to our veterans, and recognizes the essential role their families, caregivers, and survivors have every day.”

Dole, herself a caregiver to husband Bob Dole, the former U.S. Senate majority leader and a veteran injured in World War II, has been an advocate for military and veteran caregivers in recent years through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

Sherman Gillums, executive director at Paralyzed Veterans of America, will serve as vice chair of the committee. The group also includes Lolita Zinke, wife of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who served as a Navy SEAL.

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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