Democrats Introduce Bill That Could Embarrass Wal-Mart

Posted June 22, 2005 at 6:36pm

Against a backdrop of demonstrators holding signs reading “Health Care — Not Special Interest Handouts,” a trio of Democratic lawmakers announced the introduction of legislation they said would reveal the true cost of Wal-Mart’s low prices to taxpayers.

Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday introduced the Health Care Accountability Act, which has no GOP sponsors, in both chambers.

The legislation would require states to report the number of employees of large companies that receive government-sponsored health coverage such as Medicaid.

Unlike a vetoed bill in Maryland that would have required employers like Wal-Mart to spend a specified portion of their profits on their workers’ health coverage, this bill would mandate only that data be collected and made public.

That alone could serve as an impetus for companies to step up their health coverage, the Members said.

“If you don’t want to end up on a chart of shame, there’s an easy solution,” Weiner said at a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building. “Part of the plan is to embarrass companies like Wal-Mart” in order to get them to provide greater coverage for their employees.

Corzine said that when the government picks up the tab for the company’s uninsured employees, it amounts to a “Wal-Mart tax.”

In contrast to Wal-Mart’s low profile on Capitol Hill as recently as a year ago, Wal-Mart advocates also attended the event.

The company’s director of government relations, Kimberly Woodard, said after the press conference that “I don’t think we have a Wal-Mart health care crisis. I think we have a national health care crisis. I think it is disingenuous to put this all on Wal-Mart.”

In addition to the Members who attended, United Food and Commercial Workers Union President Joe Hansen was on hand, along with a group from Wake Up Wal-Mart.

“We are genuinely concerned about health care in America,” Hansen said at the event. “This act will help the American people find out the truth,” which he said he and other union representatives already know. “The Wal-Martization of our economy jeopardizes our workers’ ability to join the middle class,” he said.

Ann Shupe, a member of the UFCW union from West Virginia, said her health care benefits at the Kroger Co. are at risk. “Kroger is asking me to make concessions because of Wal-Mart,” she said.

After the event, Hansen said that his union, along with Wake Up Wal-Mart, which is funded by the UFCW, is targeting Wal-Mart almost exclusively because Wal-Mart is the “biggest and baddest, and we’ll go from there.”

Unions and anti-Wal-Mart groups have long worked at the state and local level to pass laws that rein in Wal-Mart on one front or another.

But Chris Kofinis, communications adviser to Wake Up Wal-Mart, called the Kennedy-Weiner bill “the first dramatic piece of national legislation.”

Mia Masten, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman who also attended the event, said later that “we encourage transparency, as long as collection [of the data] is done equally.”

Masten stressed that the company wants to make sure that if the government uses this data as a baseline, then the data must be comprehensive, accurate and uniform among different states.

“Those are the types of possible amendments that need to be looked at if the legislation is going to move forward,” she said.

In addition, she said, lawmakers should look at the percentage — rather than the absolute numbers — of a company’s employees in the federal health system, because Wal-Mart is the largest retail employer in the United States and focusing on it alone would be misleading.

According to a statement released by Wal-Mart, the retail giant said that it historically has paid about two-thirds of the cost of its employees’ medical plan.

“We insure more than 500,000 associates,” with premiums starting below $40 a month, the statement said. And advocates for Wal-Mart frequently point out that it provides health coverage for part-time workers — something many of its competitors do not.

Bill Miller, the vice president for Congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that his group considers the Wal-Mart bill a national business issue.

“This does not help the uninsured problem,” he said. “All it does is take away either corporate or government resources that could better be used to lessen the number of un- and under-insured Americans.”