WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-controlled House Thursday debated legislation to boost health care spending for veterans and funding to compensate record numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans claiming service-related disabilities as they return to the United States.
Roughly half of the $148 billion measure is for veterans' pensions and disability payments over which lawmakers have little practical control. That includes a 20 percent, $10.5 billion increase for such payments.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. About 1.2 million people are expected to file for disability claims next year — on top of a backlog of almost 1 million applicants.
The measure also boosts funding for Veterans Administration medical services in 2014 by $2.2 billion, a 5 percent increase that came even as the VA revealed earlier this year that it had overestimated medical care costs by $3 billion for the ongoing budget year and $2 billion for next year.
VA medical programs are budgeted more than a year in advance to insulate them from the ups and downs of the budget process.
The veterans measure is perhaps the most popular of the 12 annual spending bills and was expected to get a sweeping vote despite a White House veto threat issued on Wednesday. The White House threat didn't involve the veterans measure itself. Instead, it was in protest over moves by GOP leaders to break faith with last summer's budget deal by cutting overall funding for agency operating budgets by $19 billion, almost 2 percent.
The veto promise doesn't find fault with the funding levels in the veterans' measure itself. Instead, it says that the GOP moves on spending will force deep cuts to domestic programs like education, research and health care in subsequent legislation.
A close vote was expected on an amendment to strip a provision preventing the VA and Pentagon from requiring contractors to sign project labor agreements to secure federal contracts. Such agreements require contractors to negotiate with union officials, recognize union wages and generally abide by collective-bargaining agreements.
The outcome of the labor-related provision could influence the number of Democrats who would vote for the measure.
Disability claims from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are running much higher than from veterans of prior conflicts. An estimated 21 percent of veterans filed claims after the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, government officials say.
What's more, these new veterans are claiming a greater number of ailments than veterans of prior conflicts like the Vietnam War and World War II.
Many factors are driving the dramatic increase in claims — the weak economy, more troops surviving wounds and more awareness of problems such as concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Disability payments range from $127 a month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full one.
The measure also funds $10.6 billion worth of military construction projects.