Many Workers At Wal-Mart Don't Use Its Health Plans

A Wal-Mart survey found that 47 percent of its workers get health coverage through the retailer and 43 percent are covered through other sources.
A Wal-Mart survey found that 47 percent of its workers get health coverage through the retailer and 43 percent are covered through other sources. (By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)
By Ylan Q. Mui and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 11, 2007

About 90 percent of Wal-Mart employees have health-care coverage, but 43 percent do not get it from the mammoth retailer, relying instead on benefits from a spouse, federal programs or even their parents, according to an internal survey the company made public yesterday.

Wal-Mart employs more than 1.3 million people in the United States, making it one of the country's largest employers. The company surveyed more than 200,000 workers during the fall open-enrollment period for health benefits, the retailer's first effort to capture such data as it faces criticism from labor unions that accuse it of paying low wages and skimping on health benefits.

According to the report, 22 percent of employees receive health benefits under a spouse's plan. Nearly 5 percent are on Medicare. Four percent are insured through their parents, school or college. About 2 percent are covered by Medicaid, and another 1 percent use an alternate state program.

"I don't believe that our goal is ever to convince someone to move off of Medicare or their retirement plan . . . to Wal-Mart health-care coverage," said Linda M. Dillman, who oversees risk management and benefits for the retailer. "Our goal is to ensure our associates have access to health care and that it's affordable."

Wal-Mart said about 47 percent of its employees have enrolled in the company's health plans. About 10 percent have no insurance.

The company has been accused of not offering enough coverage for employees and of shifting health-care costs to the government. In Maryland, labor unions helped pass a bill last year that would have required Wal-Mart to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health care or pay into a state fund for the poor. A state court struck down the law over the summer.

Anti-Wal-Mart groups yesterday criticized the health-care survey, saying it highlighted the undesirability of the company's plans.

"Rather than be embarrassed at health-care failures, Wal-Mart is trying to brag that leaving over half of their employees and families without Wal-Mart health care is an improvement," said Chris Kofinis, spokesman for Wake-Up Wal-Mart, which is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Wal-Mart has tried to fight back against its negative public image by offering $4 generic prescription drugs at its pharmacies and has made some changes to its coverage, including reducing the waiting period to one year from two for part-time employees to become eligible for benefits. This week, it unveiled a TV ad campaign dubbed "One Company" that is to air across the country and tout its health-care benefits.

Dillman said she has tried to improve communication with employees about the plans. The company created an online tool called "Someone Like Me" that offered examples of people with various health plans to help employees make choices. Dillman said the number of employees who signed up for company health care jumped 8 percent during the open-enrollment period, from 592,000 on Sept. 16 to 636,391 by Jan. 1.

However, employee totals can fluctuate from day to day. On Jan. 1, 2006, Wal-Mart said, 615,000 employees were enrolled in the company's health plans, 3 percent less than what it reported a year later.

Despite the fluctuations, Dillman emphasized that the percentage of workers enrolled in the company's benefits program has increased over the past two years.

In its study, Wal-Mart said more than three-quarters of its employees are eligible for its health-care plans -- beating the retail industry average of 59 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the percentage of its eligible workers who sign up for coverage is lower: 62 percent compared with an industry average of 75 percent.

Wal-Mart Watch, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union, said the retailer should make additional changes to its plans to make them more attractive to workers.

"Wal-Mart's health-care plan remains a raw deal for its employees," said Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company