By Susan Redden

sredden@joplinglobe.com

Retail giant Wal-Mart is parting company with many other retailers and businesses: Its executives are calling for health-care reform to include a requirement that most employers provide health-insurance coverage for their workers.

Some local employers, even those who offer health-insurance benefits, say the mandate would hurt business and further stall the nation’s economic recovery.

“My initial reaction is it would cripple small business,” said Dick Weber, the former chief executive officer of Hampshire Pet Products, who now is the CEO of VitalSurge LLC.

“My goodness, I’m working on a start-up right now,” he said. “It would kill us.”

Weber is also president of the board of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, though he said he was not speaking for the hospital and its officials.

Chris Henkle, who with her husband owns True Value Hardware in Webb City, said they have tried to get health insurance for their workers, but have not been able to afford coverage that would be a benefit.

“We’ve tried over and over,” Henkle said. “With just a basic plan, the deductible would have to be so high it wouldn’t help them.”

It’s easy for Wal-Mart to call for mandatory coverage, she said, when the retail giant has the same buying power in insurance as it does in buying products for its stores.

“It’s not a level playing field,” she said. “To me, it looks like just another attempt by the big boxes to run the rest of us out. I think that’s the point of it.”

Criticism

The announcement has brought sharp criticism from the National Retail Federation, which has rallied its 2,500 members to fight Wal-Mart’s stance.

Tracy Mullin, president and CEO of the federation, said in a prepared statement that an employer mandate “would be catastrophic for our industry,” and would force most businesses to either have to reduce payroll or raise prices.

Steve Anderson, vice president of Anderson’s Western Wear, agreed. He said there is no comparing Wal-Mart and most other retailers.

“No employer is going to risk losing everything they have worked for. Somebody is going to pay for it,” Anderson said. “You know who that is going to be; the point I am trying to make is that the consumer is going to pay for it.”

The company offered health insurance in the past, “until it just got plumb stupid,” Anderson said.

“The rate tripled in probably a 12-month period of time and got to be where we just couldn’t afford it,” Anderson said. “It would be hard for us. I would be against it.”

Another concern, Weber said, is there is no information on how, and to what businesses, the mandate should be applied.

“Where is the threshold where this kicks in?” he asked. “What are they agreeing to mandate? There is no definition.”

As one of the region’s largest employers, the Joplin R-8 School District provides health insurance coverage for its full-time workers.

But Superintendent C.J. Huff said the benefit is something each individual employer must decide whether or not they can provide.

“I’m sure all employers would like to provide coverage, but every district and every business is different,” he said. “Public schools in particular don’t get to raise prices and pass on costs to the customer. It hurts when insurance rates skyrocket, and it makes it very difficult to budget. We’re fortunate here that our employees keep themselves healthy.”

‘Shared responsibility’

The call for an employee mandate and “shared responsibility” came in a letter to President Barack Obama and signed by Wal-Mart president and CEO Mike Duke, along with Andrew Stern, president of Service Employees International Union and John Podesta, president of Center for American Progress.

“Not every business can make the same contribution, but everyone must make some contribution,” the three wrote in a letter sent to Obama.

A statement by Wal-Mart’s vice president for government relations said the mandate “should cover as many businesses as possible and cover part-time as well as full-time employees.

The letter argued that a large and growing uninsured population is crippling the nation’s broader economic growth.

“Today, health-care costs more because we don’t cover everyone — the average family premium costs an additional $1,100 because our system fails to provide continuous coverage for all Americans. And losing coverage pushes people already dealing with financial hardship to the verge of financial collapse.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.







Press conference

Legislation allowing associations to provide group health insurance to sole proprietors and the self-employed was passed by the Missouri General Assembly in its last session. State Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, R-Joplin, sponsored the measure and will discuss it at a press conference set for 10 a.m. today at the Joplin Chamber of Commerce.

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