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US: Maryland Sets a Health Cost for Wal-Mart

by Michael BarbaroThe New York Times
January 13th, 2006

The Maryland legislature passed a law Thursday that would require Wal-Mart Stores to increase spending on employee health insurance, a measure that is expected to be a model for other states.

The legislature's move, which overrode a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, was a response to growing criticism that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has skimped on benefits and shifted health costs to state governments.

The vote came after a furious lobbying battle by Wal-Mart and by labor and liberal groups, and is likely to encourage lawmakers in dozens of other states who are considering similar legislation.

Many state legislatures have looked to Maryland as a test case, as they face fast-rising Medicaid costs, and Wal-Mart's critics say that too many of its employees have been forced to turn to Medicaid.

Under the Maryland law, employers with 10,000 or more workers in the state must spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health insurance, or else pay the difference into a state Medicaid fund.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company was "weighing its options," including a lawsuit to challenge the law because it is close to that 8 percent threshold already.

It is unclear how much the new law will cost Wal-Mart in Maryland - or around the country, if similar laws are adopted, because Wal-Mart has not publicly divulged what it spends on health care.

But it was concerned enough about the bill to hire four firms to lobby the legislature intensely over the last two months, and contributed at least $4,000 to the re-election campaign of Governor Ehrlich.

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, Mia Masten, said that "everyone should have access to affordable health insurance, but this legislation does nothing to accomplish this goal."

"This is about partisan politics," she said, "and this is poor public policy driven by special-interest groups."

There are four employers in Maryland with more than 10,000 workers - among them, Johns Hopkins University, the grocery chain Giant Food and the military contractor Northrop Grumman, but only Wal-Mart falls below the 8 percent threshold on health care spending.

A Democratic lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, State Senator Gloria G. Lawlah , maintained: "This is not a Wal-Mart bill, it's a Medicaid bill." This bill says to the conglomerates, 'Don't dump the employees that you refuse to insure into our Medicaid systems.' "

Opponents said the law would open the door for broader state regulation of health care spending by private companies and would send the message that Maryland is antibusiness.

"The message is, 'Don't come here,' " said Senator E. J. Pipkin, a Republican. "This is an anti-jobs bill."

Several lawmakers said that in the end, the law would require Wal-Mart to spend only slightly more than it does now on health insurance. But with Wal-Mart refusing to disclose what it pays for health costs, it was unclear how much more it would be required to pay.

This is the second time that the Maryland legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, has passed the Wal-Mart bill. Governor Ehrlich vetoed it late last year, inviting a senior Wal-Mart executive to sit by his side as he did so.

Indeed, the bill is shaping up as an issue in the fall campaign, with Republicans and their business allies lining up against it, and Democrats and their labor union supporters backing it. Wal-Mart has 53 stores and employs about 17,000 people in Maryland.

Debate was particularly emotional among representatives from Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Wal-Mart recently announced plans to build a distribution center that would employ up to 1,000.

Wal-Mart executives have strongly suggested that they might build the center elsewhere if lawmakers passed the health care bill.

In a passionate speech in the State Senate, J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican, warned that the bill "jeopardizes good employment for my people."

"It's going to hurt us very bad," he added,

The bill's passage underscored the success of the union campaign to turn Wal-Mart into a symbol of what is wrong in the American health care system.

Wal-Mart has come under severe criticism because it insures less than half its United States work force and because its employees routinely show up, in larger numbers than employees of other retailers, on state Medicaid rolls.

In response to the complaints, the company introduced a new health care plan late last year, with premiums as low as $11 a month.

Consumer advocates specializing in health care are hoping that the Maryland law will be the first of many.

"You're going to see similar legislation being introduced," said Ronald Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit health advocacy organization, "and debated in at least three dozen more states, and at least some of those states will end up also requiring large employers to provide health care coverage."

Mr. Pollack suggested that he did not expect any groundswell of opposition from corporate America. Most companies, he said, provide insurance and know that the costs of medical treatment for uninsured people are reflected in their insurance premiums. Mr. Pollack said that, by his organization's calculations, the cost of such treatment drove up employer premiums by $922 a family last year. In 2006, he said, the added cost could reach $1,000 a family.

"Those employers should welcome the fact that the companies that do not offer coverage now will be forced to step up to the plate," he said.

State lawmakers here in Annapolis took repeated swipes at Wal-Mart during debate over the bill on Thursday. It appeared that the company's intensive lobbying campaign in Maryland, including advertisements arguing that the requirement would hurt small businesses, might have soured some lawmakers.

Senator Lawlah called the lobbying "horrendous" and adding, "I have never seen anything like it."

Frank D. Boston III, the chief lobbyist for Wal-Mart on the health care bill, stood in the main corridor of the Capitol building on Thursday wearing a look of resignation. Referring to unions in the state, he said, "They have a power we can't match, and we worked this bill extremely hard."

Wal-Mart is appealing. The company settled a similar case in Colorado for $50 million.

Wal-Mart has given "every indication" that it will go to trial rather than settle, Mr. Donovan said. A Wal-Mart spokesman, Kevin Thornton, said the company was considering appealing the decision.

Claudia H. Deutsch contributed reporting from New York for this article.





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