- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., under attack for the health care coverage provided employees, plans improvements that would include expanding the availability of its lowest-cost plan and shortening the waiting periods to enroll part-time workers and their children.

At the same time, Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott said yesterday that employers cannot continue to meet the rising costs of health care and urged a government-business partnership to find an answer.

The announcement marks the second time in six months that the world’s largest retailer has moved to improve health benefits. It comes ahead of Mr. Scott’s speech Sunday about the issue to the nation’s governors, who are looking for ways to cap rising costs for taxpayer-funded health plans that cover the uninsured. Details of the new health benefit plans are expected to be revealed in the coming months.

Mr. Scott is also expected to renewed Wal-Mart’s criticism of bills filed in at least 22 states that would force the retailer to spend more on health care.

Maryland has become the first state in the nation to require Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care or pay the difference into the state’s Medicaid fund. The Retail Industry Leaders Association has challenged the law in court.

“The soaring cost of health care in America cannot be sustained over the long term by any business that offers health benefits to its employees,” Mr. Scott said in a statement released ahead of the speech to the National Governors Association.

Under mounting criticism from organized labor and other groups, Wal-Mart last fall offered new lower-premium insurance aimed at getting more of its work force on company plans.

The company said premiums of $23 a month — and as low as $11 in a select number of locations with special deals with medical providers — helped get 70,000 workers enrolled in Wal-Mart plans for the first time.

Wal-Mart had 615,000 employees enrolled in company health plans of January, compared with 568,000 a year earlier, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said. It has 1.3 million U.S. employees.

Mr. Scott said new steps would include expanding the $11 monthly premium to make it available to half of all U.S. employees by next year and shortening eligibility periods for part-time workers and their children from 24 months. Wal-Mart is still deciding what the new waiting period will be, a company spokeswoman said.

Wal-Mart will also expand a trial run of in-store clinics, which are aimed at providing lower cost routine health care to the public, to more than 50 stores this year from about a dozen now. Several retailers are testing the idea as an alternative to long waits at doctors’ offices for minor ailments and tests.

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