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Corinne Ramey

Walmart’s New Health Care Mojo?

Rarely do you see the words "Walmart" and "mojo" mentioned in the same CNN headline or the words "Walmart" and "less stinginess" together in the New York Times.

But Walmart showed up in both contexts on Tuesday, thanks to the announcement of its new health care plan. CNN has already decided that "Walmart gets its mojo back," so now it's time to ask a more important question: What's going on with Walmart's health care mojo?

Walmart has a notorious record in the field of health care. Some of Walmart's health care initiatives in the past have been laughably bad -- such as an internal memo that suggested that Walmart's cashiers push around carts for exercise. As Walmart admits on its own website, only 46% of "associates" were covered in January of 2006, and still insures fewer than half of its 1.4 million U.S. employees.

But as the Times reports today, Walmart's health care plan is changing for the better. While far from ideal, the new plans do exhibit "less stinginess," and offer Walmart employees better and more affordable care. By 2008, employees will be able to choose from a variety of plans. For example, the same plan that cost $1,500 a few years ago -- a family plan with a deductible of $4,000 and the responsibility for the first $10,000 in medical bills -- will cost only $250 in 2008. A plan with better coverage -- a $700 deductible and responsibility for only $4,000 in medical bills -- costs $7,000 each year. Walmart has also gotten rid of extraneous fees like charging $150 extra per month for covering a spouse. Although these plans are nowhere close to those offered by Costco, which is often considered the "headline">gold standard" of retail corporate responsibility, Walmart's new plans are comparable to those offered by Target, a competitor that is perceived to be more worker-friendly.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Walmart's health care reform are not the plan details, but rather the backstory and future implications of the reforms.

For years, Walmart has been under serious pressure from unions, advocacy groups, and politicians to increase its thin health care coverage. As the Times reports,

"Across the country, politicians and labor groups derided the company’s health plans for their high expense and bare-bones coverage. Two states, California and Maryland, even passed laws demanding, in effect, that the company spend more on employee health benefits. 'We want this giant to behave itself,' one Maryland legislator, Anne Healey, said at the time. The giant, it turns out, was listening. All the criticism was hurting its reputation and its ability to expand."

According to the Times, Walmart went to serious lengths to consult with a variety of its critics -- everyone from Bill Clinton to Families USA to the New Americas Foundation. They also consulted corporations known for better health care plans -- like Starbucks and Pitney Bowes -- to learn from their experiences. In other words, even Walmart -- a giant corporation that cares about low prices so much that it does things like locking up injured workers in stores overnight -- isn't so powerful that it doesn't feel the pressure of advocacy groups like Walmart Watch and unions like the Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers. Although the Walmart's new health care plan isn't as comprehensive as what any of these groups would have liked, the reforms do show that even the world's biggest corporation can be held accountable to its workers.

And now, for the future. Hopefully, Walmart's new health care plans will benefit not only its employees, but the American middle class as well. With 46 million people uninsured, and 73% of Americans saying that they approve of universal coverage, it's time for a change in health care policy in this country. As corporations and employers are increasingly pressured to provide health care to their employees, or Fair Share health care laws mandate that employers provide health care, it's likely that the corporations themselves will start to put pressure on the government for universal care. Employers, and especially huge corporations like Walmart, could be some of the biggest beneficiaries of universal care. We've already seen what happens when employers feel the pressure of health care costs, with corporations like Toyota choosing to open plants in Canada instead of the U.S. because the Canadian health care system saves them between $4 and $5 per worker each hour. Other corporations have actual advocated for universal care.

So, has Walmart gotten its health care mojo back? Probably not, since its health care plan was pretty dismal in the first place and it still continue to deny its workers the right. But on the bright side, unions and advocacy groups that pressured Walmart to change have a good deal of mojo, and that gives me hope for American health care reform in the future.

You can learn more about Fair Share health care from the Marketplace of Ideas video and podcast on the DMI website.

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:07 AM, Nov 14, 2007 in Corporate Accountability | Economy | Financial Justice | Health Care
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