Six months after the governor’s veto of landmark legislation designed to force Wal-Mart to pay some of the cost of its employees’ health care, the Maryland General Assembly returned to work last month and immediately voted to override the veto.
Maryland became the first state to adopt the controversial legislation, but it probably will not be the last. More than 30 states are considering similar bills.
Known as the “Fair Share Health Care Act,” the law requires employers with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least eight percent of their payroll on health benefits or put the same amount of money into the state’s health program for the poor. Apparently, Wal-Mart is the only large employer in Maryland that does not meet the health care spending threshold.
Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. blamed the bill on labor unions. Wal-Mart is non-union. The bill, however, was strongly supported by health care advocates and other retailers, such as Giant Food, that do contribute to their employees’ health care. Scott asserted that these companies were motivated by their wish “to continue to be rewarded for operating in ways that are less efficient.”
“In this case,” said Noel Borck, LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman, “Wal-Mart’s ‘efficiency’ is achieved by keeping benefits low and channeling employees in need of health care to local emergency rooms or the state’s MEDICAID program. We see the same pattern among non-union employers in the construction industry. Responsible contractors who provide health care find themselves in difficult competition with non-union shops that provide no health benefits and cut corners on safety and health.”
Numerous studies show that a disproportionate number of children of Wal-Mart employees are on various state MEDICAID programs. Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the United States, is home to the nation’s “working poor.”
“We don’t want to kill this giant,” said Delegate Anne Healey (D – Prince Georges), the lead sponsor in the House. “We want this giant to not be a bully.”
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, predicted that the legislation would “sweep the nation because people are looking for a way to expand health care access and spread the burden.”
Certainly, if Wal-Mart is forced to begin funding employee health care in Maryland, many more workers and their families will have health care. On the other hand, as Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out, more than half of the 45 million Americans without health insurance work for companies with ten or fewer employees. “This in no way gets to the root of the problem,” he said.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Borck, who also pointed out that the publicity around the bill’s adoption, despite its negative portrayal of Wal-Mart, shed new light on the nation’s massive health care problem. “As other states consider similar bills, the public and our elected officials are getting an education about the nature of the health care crisis and ways it might be resolved.”