House votes down ‘Wal-Mart bill’

The New Hampshire House voted 212-128 Wednesday to kill a bill to make the state’s 25 largest companies offer health benefits equal to 10-1/2 percent of their payroll.

Supporters of House Bill 1704 said the vast majority of businesses already provide health benefits to their employees and thus subsidize the profits of larger firms that essentially shift their health-care costs onto taxpayers at all levels. While they denied the measure was aimed at a single company, its State House nickname was the “Wal-Mart bill.”

The bill required that the largest employers either must show they spend 10.5 percent of their payroll on health coverage or they must pay the same amount into the state’s Medicaid program. Large nonprofits would have been required to pay 8.5 percent of their payroll.

The prime sponsor, Rep. Marcia Moody, D-Newmarket, preferred calling her proposal the “Fair Share bill.” She read and dispelled a long list of supposed myths about her bill: that it was a union bill, a tax on business, a bar to hiring the elderly, a health insurance mandate, a special burden on firms with high-paying jobs, and a mere clone of a Maryland law that passed last month over the governor’s veto.

“Polls show that 83 percent of the state is ready for this kind of reform” Moody said. “The other New England states are working on similar legislation. Let’s stop supporting corporate welfare.”

But opponents warned that HB 1704 would lead down a slippery slope. Rep. Charles Clark, R-Gilford, said future legislation would make firms with 1,000 or 500 employees provide the same insurance.

“Why not everybody?” he asked. “There’s no question health insurance is too expensive, but voluntary employer coverage works pretty well.”

Rep. Bonnie Mitchell, D-Jaffrey, conceded lawmakers might try to lower the bar later, but said small businesses now pay several times. They pay for their health benefits and the higher taxes when government covers the costs of the uninsured.

Rep. Sheila Francoeur, R-Hampton, said she opposed the bill because it made a “giant social and political change.”

Rep. William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said the principle of the bill was discredited. “It takes from each according to their ability and gives according to their needs,” he said. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS SERVICE

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