N.H. ‘Wal-Mart bill’ under scrutiny

Should large employers in New Hampshire be required to provide health-care coverage for their employees, and pay the state if they don’t? And should they be required at least to report the coverage they do provide?

That is the question raised by at least two bills being introduced in New Hampshire this session, among a number of similar so-called “play or pay” health-care bills being put forward across the nation.

House Bill 1703 would require all businesses with more than 500 employees to report how much coverage they provide to their employees.

HB 1704 would affect those with 1,500 or more employees – some 16 business, according to a sponsor of the bill – but it also would require them to dedicate a certain amount of their payroll to health-care coverage. If they don’t, they’ll have to hand over to the state what it deems they should pay.

The bill will particularly hit some large discount retailers, which don’t offer all of their employees health-care coverage.

Some business groups are already up in arms against the bill.

“At what point did it become business’ obligation to provide health care?” asked Nancy Kyle. president of the Retail Merchants Association of the New Hampshire. “If businesses were mandated to provide health care, it would put them out of business in this state.”

Kyle said the bills don’t address the real problem: the rising cost of health care.

Lobbyists for the retail merchants and the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire testified Jan. 11 against HB 1704.

David Juvet of the BIA said the real issue is medical cost escalation and urged lawmakers to back HB 1555, drafted by the BIA and sponsored by Rep. Jim MacKay, R-Concord.

But Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, sponsor of HB 1703 and a co-sponsor of HB 1704, said that the bills are aimed at cutting costs, and is therefore something that businesses – particularly small businesses struggling to provide coverage for their workers — could get behind.

Large companies that skimp on health-care coverage, she argued, force their workers to apply for government-provided Medicaid or Healthy Kids coverage.

“The taxpayers end up funding the bottom line of that company,” giving those companies an unfair competitive advantage over companies that do provide health benefits, she said.

Further, she said, uninsured people who do end up in the health-care system result in cost-shifting on the part of hospitals and other providers to privately insured patients — which increases rates. Thus, businesses that do pay for health coverage end up paying for those who don’t, both through their taxes and their insurance rates.

“It’s not fair to have some business subsidize other businesses that don’t step up to the plate,” said Walz.

National movement

Walz said HB 1703 wouldn’t require any more than reporting on the part of businesses, but those reports would go to the Legislature and then presumably be made public.

The idea isn’t to shame large employers into submission, Walz said.

“My belief is that it would be public, but I don’t care if it is,” she said. “I care if the state has access to the data.”

The second bill, sponsored by Marcia Moody, D-Portsmouth, would require that for-profit companies with more than 1,500 employees pay 10.5 percent of their payroll for health benefits. Non-profits would have to pay 8.5 percent.

Walz, a co-sponsor of the bill, said they plan to lower the percentages to 8.5 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, if they succeed in amending the measure.

If a company fails to meet that amount, it will have to pay the difference into a special fund that would augment the state’s Medicaid costs.

Earlier this month, a similar bill passed in Maryland, making it the first state to approve legislation forcing large employers to pay more for its employee health care, potentially paving the way for other states to follow suit.

The bill, which passed despite a veto by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., requires employers with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health care or else pay into a fund for the uninsured. At this time, only Wal-Mart is affected by the legislation.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said the company is exploring options to challenge the law, which takes effect in January 2007.

Similar bills have been proposed in other states for smaller groups of employees, said Kyle, and warned that if the New Hampshire bill passes, proponents would try to expand it to smaller businesses in the future.

But Walz pointed to other states to show how reasonable her bill was. She pointed to one bill in Massachusetts that would simply mandate health-care coverage for those with 11 or more employees. That bill passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives but was stalled in the Senate.

“That’s much more onerous than what we are proposing,” she said.

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