Wal-Mart set to beef up health plans

Feb. 23, 2006 at 3:31 PM

BENTONVILLE, Ark., Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Wal-Mart said Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott will unveil Sunday planned enhancements to the retail giant's worker health plan.

In a statement released Thursday Wal-Mart said Scott will offer an early glimpse into changes aimed at making its health coverage "more affordable and accessible" to workers in a speech set for Sunday at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington.

Wal-Mart said the changes will be fully unveiled in April. Among the changes promised:

-- "significant" reduction in the waiting period for part-time associates to sign on to the company's health plan

-- expansion of the health plans of part-time workers from individual policies only to include a part-time worker's children, once the part-time worker becomes eligible for coverage

-- expansion of the availability of the lowest cost "value plan" option -- which costs $11 per month for individuals and 30 cents more per day for children -- to include "at least half of all associates by next year"

"During our most recent open enrollment period, we signed up more than 70,000 associates who didn't have our health insurance before," Scott is scheduled to say in his prepared remarks.

"Fifty thousand of those working men and women were previously uninsured. And this is just a start. We're going to take significant steps to make our health benefits even more affordable and accessible to the working families we employ."

Wal-Mart said its CEO will also "call for a new commitment from leaders in government and business to help solve the health care challenges facing America's employers and working families."

The company added that Scott would announce plans to open this year 50 new health clinics in Wal-Mart stores, noting that Wal-Mart currently has nine "pilot clinics" at sites in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida and Indiana.

The planned speech is part of the retailer's counter-PR blitz aimed at reviving the company's flagging public image amid charges that it offers dismal health plans to its employees, forcing many of them onto Medicaid rolls -- and stingy wages.

Wal-Mart is also fighting attempts by several states to pass "fair share" laws, like the one recently passed in Maryland, requiring companies employing more than 10,000 workers to apply at least 8 percent of their payroll to healthcare or donate the difference to the state's Medicaid fund.

In its statement, Wal-Mart claimed that such legislation has encountered "setbacks" in nine states.

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