- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said yesterday that, for the first time, half of its employees are covered by its health care plan and that 92.7 percent of employees have insurance, whether through the company or another provider.

The world’s largest retailer and the country’s largest private employer said the number of uninsured employees fell from 9.6 percent a year ago to 7.3 percent after its most recent open enrollment period.

The number of employees with insurance rose from 90.4 percent the year before. At that time, 47.4 percent of employees elected to take Wal-Mart’s coverage compared to 50.2 percent this year.

The Bentonville, Ark., company has faced criticism from labor unions and other groups that say its health care coverage is too difficult to obtain or too expensive, prompting some eligible employees to turn to Medicaid.

Wal-Mart has made changes to its plan that allow employees to alter their health care coverage based on their needs and expanded benefits to include coverage for families, $4 generic drugs and pre-deductible health care credits. It also sent all employees DVDs about how to enroll and posted that information online.

In last fall’s open-enrollment period, 79 percent of Wal-Mart’s approximately 1.3 million employees were eligible for benefits, according to the company.

The number of Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid remained about the same at 4.3 percent, down 0.2 percent from last year.

More than 300,000 employees who chose Wal-Mart insurance coverage for the first time in the company’s recent open enrollment period said they were previously uninsured.

“We are thrilled that we have moved a significant amount of our associates off the list of uninsured,” said Linda Dillman, executive vice president of benefits and risk management at Wal-Mart.

“Our goal is to have every eligible associate select health care coverage, and we will share our learnings externally so that we can help advance the overall national discussion about access to coverage and the impact on the uninsured,” she said.

The company said that it will conduct a study to determine why employees who declined coverage did so.

Critics such as Wal-Mart Watch say the new plan is designed to placate critics, not to improve employee benefits. The group, which is based in Washington, said even more employees would have joined if the new plan were vastly different than previous versions.

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