Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said yesterday that it will launch a new health care plan for its employees in 2006, lowering premiums by 40 to 60 percent. But the company's critics say the plan remains unaffordable, with deductibles of $1,000 to $3,000.
The new plan will be one option among almost a dozen, and Dan Fogelman, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the company decided to offer the additional plan because premiums on its current offerings are due to go up 3 percent next year.
"We'll do everything we can to make [a plan] affordable," he said.
Under the new offering, an individual employee would have a deductible of $1,000, while a family would have one of $3,000. Three doctor visits at a $20 co-payment would be allowed before the deductible kicked in, and the first year there would be a $25,000 cap for each participant. Most individuals would pay a $25 monthly premium, or $65 for family coverage. A single parent would pay $37 monthly. In a few, mostly urban, areas, the premium would cost only $11, Fogelman said.
Wal-Mart has been criticized for not offering health care coverage for many of its 1.2 million workers, with fewer than half of its employees receiving company health benefits. Part-time employees are eligible for coverage after two years of service. Full-time employees can sign up after 180 days.
Critics have argued that many workers had to rely on government health care programs because Wal-Mart's coverage is unaffordable or not available to them. In June, several congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would force states to report companies that have 50 or more employees who receive government-funded health care, an effort to pressure Wal-Mart, in particular, to improve employee health coverage.
Currently, Wal-Mart employees who work 34 hours or more a week can receive full-time benefits. Family premiums range from $155 a month with a $1,000 deductible to nearly $300 a month with a deductible of $350.
Wal-Mart's opponents called the new plan a publicity stunt.
"The key point is that the two fundamental problems which lead to Wal-Mart insuring so few of its workers is the fact they have extremely high deductibles and very strict eligibility requirements," said Paul Blank, campaign director with Wake-Up Wal-Mart, an organization funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "Nothing that they announced today addresses either of these fundamental problems."
A plan with a low monthly premium but a higher deductible is becoming more acceptable to unions, said Charles B. Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University. If a worker does not get sick during the year, they don't feel the $1,000 deductible. "It's emotionally easy to sell," he said.