Several congressional Democrats introduced a bill yesterday that would force states to report the names of companies that have 50 or more employees who receive government-funded health care, an effort to pressure Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in particular to improve employee health coverage.
In introducing the Health Care Accountability Act, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) said they are concerned that large employers such as Wal-Mart are transferring responsibility for health care to government-funded programs such as Medicaid.
Of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million full- and part-time employers, the lawmakers estimate that more than 600,000 do not have company insurance. Company critics say Wal-Mart wages are so low and the health premiums charged to employees so high, even some full-time employees qualify for government-funded health care.
"Every member of Congress has health insurance because they understand the importance of providing for themselves and family. If it's good enough for Congress . . . it's good enough for everyone. Except for Wal-Mart," Kennedy said at a news conference. "Every worker in America is paying a part of their taxes to pay for Wal-Mart."
Wal-Mart has been the focus of legislation nationwide that would force it to do more to insure its workers. In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that would have required Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the bill, but Democratic legislative leaders have vowed to override the veto. Legislators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are moving in a similar direction, and Wal-Mart's opponents have rallied around the health care issue.
Most recently, the company lobbied against legislation in Minnesota that would show which employers have been a drain on the state's health care system.
"We encourage transparency as long as the collection includes all employers in the U.S. It is important that if we use this data collection as a baseline moving forward that the data be comprehensive and accurate," said Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst.
Wal-Mart said it provides health insurance to more than 568,000 of its employees. About 14 percent of its workers have no coverage. The rest rely on health care coverage from another source, such as a spouse or government program.
Some of the uninsured "may turn to state Medicaid programs which were designed to provide medical coverage at very low cost to relatively low-income residents, at better premiums and related costs than even Wal-Mart can negotiate," Hurst said.
Wal-Mart provides full-time benefits to employees who work 34 hours or more a week. Employees must wait 180 days before they receive health benefits. For families, premiums range from about $155 a month with a $1,000 annual deductible and access to Wal-Mart network doctors, to nearly $300 a month with a deductible of $350 and the right to use any doctor, according to the company Web site.
Hurst said most Wal-Mart jobs are full-time. Part-time workers can receive health care coverage for themselves only after two years of employment.
In 14 states that already track which companies' employees use the most government health care, Wal-Mart workers are the biggest users of such programs, according to the lawmakers. At least 27 states have introduced or plan to introduce health care disclosure legislation. Massachusetts, Colorado, Hawaii and Washington state all passed the Health Care Disclosure Act during 2005. Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire, recently vetoed the bill.
Georgia was the first state to look at such numbers. State Rep. Nan Grogan Orrock said more than 10,000 Wal-Mart employees were on a state health care program. The next-closest employer had 700 on state health care. "I call it the Wal-Mart tax," she said at the news conference. "This is a raging case of corporate welfare."
Joseph T. Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said the bill would be the first step to forcing larger companies to cover employee health care.
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