Wal-Mart’s unhealthy attitude

Whether we like it or not, employers are at the heart of the American system of health care. The entire system rests on the simple premise that most Americans with health coverage have it because the business for which they work provides it.

While the percentage appears to have been declining in recent years, the majority of employees in New Hampshire do have employer-provided health coverage. In fact, almost all of the state’s largest employers offer decent health benefits, many offering top-of-the-line coverage. And all of them have an ulterior motive: to ensure that their employees are healthy, happy and productive.

Unfortunately, all employers don’t subscribe to such a principle. They prefer to spend as little as possible for the people who do their work for them, whether it’s through wages, health insurance or other benefits. This view – which, it must be emphasized, is not subscribed to by the vast majority of New Hampshire employers – stems from a corporate attitude that essentially sees employees as just another batch of replaceable parts, another line item to be reduced at all costs.

The problem with such an approach is that employers that refuse to take part in the American system of providing health care are milking the system. They are keeping their costs as low as possible, which in turn hurts competitors that are playing according to the accepted rules.

One company that has time and again taken advantage of the system is Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest corporation and the largest private employer in New Hampshire. In an internal memo prepared for Wal-Mart’s November 2005 board of directors and made public late last year, Susan Chambers, the company’s executive vice president for benefits, reported that 27 percent of children of Wal-Mart employees are enrolled in Medicaid or state Children’s Health Insurance Programs – far more than any of its competitors. Overall, 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees themselves receive direct Medicaid coverage. Who foots the bill? Taxpayers.

The company’s refusal to provide acceptable, affordable employee health coverage has resulted in moves across the country to pass legislation that essentially recognizes that taxpayers and competitors are subsidizing companies like Wal-Mart. Most recently, a measure was enacted in Maryland that supporters say will force Wal-Mart to pay 8 percent of its payroll on health benefits.

A similar effort is taking root in New Hampshire. Whether the effort picks up steam or dies on the vine, New Hampshire businesses and taxpayers should look long and hard about a health-care system that can be manipulated by companies so brazenly unwilling to compete on a level playing field.

Categories: News