updated 7/10/2009 2:26:01 PM ET 2009-07-10T18:26:01

Veterans health care programs would receive another big boost under a $132.4 billion measure passed by the House on Friday.

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The 12 percent increase for the veterans medical services account is but the latest in a recent string of generous increases. Funding for veterans has long had strong bipartisan support.

The bill passed by a 415-3 vote, making it the most bipartisan of the seven appropriations bills to have passed so far. The 12 annual spending bills will total $1.2 trillion for agency operating budgets passed each year by Congress — known in Capitol Hill argot as the "discretionary" portion of the $3.6 trillion federal budget.

The veterans funding measure contains sweeping increases for most of the programs it covers. It would pay to hire about 1,200 additional claims processors to relieve backlogs, provide money to cover more veterans whose health problems are not related to their service, and raise the reimbursement rate that veterans get for their drives to receive care to 41.5 cents per mile.

Image: Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas
Lauren Victoria Burke / AP file
Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, authored a bill that would increase veterans' medical services by 12 percent.

"This is an unprecedented increase in Congress' commitment to veterans," said Chet Edwards, D-Texas, the measure's top author.

One reason for the spike in health care costs is that wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often have injuries — such as traumatic brain injuries and multiple losses of limbs — that in the past would have proven fatal but now require expensive care.

The measure also boosts funding for military construction projects like barracks upgrades, firing ranges, and new chapels, day care centers and fitness facilities. It continues funding the 2005 round of base closures, providing money for improving conditions at bases slated for troop increases and assisting states and localities in preparing closed bases for economic development projects and other uses.

Also Friday, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved $163.4 billion in discretionary funding for labor, health and education programs, a 7 percent boost. The measure ends a long-standing prohibition on funding for needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of the HIV virus and other diseases among intravenous drug users.

It also contains $567 billion for so-called mandatory spending on benefit programs such as Medicare.

In addition, it drops funding popular with Republicans for abstinence-only sex education. Critics have labeled the program ineffective. The measure would provide $114 million for a new teenage pregnancy prevention initiative.

The measure also provides a $6 billion, 10 percent increase to the Department of Education and gives the National Institutes of Health a 3 percent increase of almost $1 billion.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., author of the health and education measure, said it would also provide $2.2 billion for community health centers to provide health care to 17 million people, many of whom lack health insurance.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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