PI Original Adam Doster Monday February 16th, 2009, 12:36pm

How Good Is Wal-Mart's Health Care?

Advocates for Wal-Mart’s Chicago expansion will likely tout an article last week in the Washington Post on improvements in the company’s health care benefits. In glowing terms, reporter Ceci Connolly points to new policies the corporation has implemented to provide ...

Advocates for Wal-Mart’s Chicago expansion will likely tout an article last week in the Washington Post on improvements in the company’s health care benefits. In glowing terms, reporter Ceci Connolly points to new policies the corporation has implemented to provide affordable and preventive care to its workforce. According to new data, Wal-Mart says only 5.5 percent of its employees now lack health insurance, compared with a nationwide rate of 18 percent.

But at what cost? The story’s seventh graph offers some useful context:

To reach near-universal coverage, the largest private employer in the nation relies heavily on the government and other employers to play a role. Of the company’s 1.4 million workers, 52 percent are in a Wal-Mart health plan. Despite revenue that is expected to exceed $400 billion for 2008, the company charges its low-wage workers a substantial portion of their income for medical coverage.

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein also points out that while coverage has grown among Wal-Mart workers, the plans offered are cheaper and cover less ailments. “More of their employees are ‘insured,’” he writes, “but it’s not clear how many are actually protected.”

Considering that the company takes home $12 billion in annual profits and actually grows during a recession, it seems fair to expect them to provide better care to their employees.

But Klein takes a step back and asks a more pertinent question: Why aren’t they pushing the government to take health care off their books entirely?

That, after all, is what legislation like the Wyden-Bennett plan would do. No one would care about Wal-Mart’s health care plan because Wal-Mart wouldn’t be responsible for offering a health care plan. But they don’t advocate such policies, presumably because their health care spending is lower than, say, Sears’ health care spending, and that gives them a slight competitive advantage. Which just goes to underscore the problem: Health care should not hinge on employers.

For more on how a single-payer system would be good for businesses, read this 2004 Nation piece by Morton Mintz.

Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user El Negro Magnifico.

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