Wal-Mart's "Value Plan" for health care

The NY Times reports today that Wal-Mart -- long criticized for failing to offer affordable health care coverage, forcing many employees onto Medicaid and other public assistance or to go uninsured completely -- is introducing a cheaper plan which includes monthly premiums "as low as $11." The new "Value Plan" also includes health savings accounts.

Wal-Mart wasn't willing to conceed that the move was a response to years of investigative reports and grassroots advocacy drawing attention to the fact that only about half of Wal-Mart employees are insured -- compared to 80% at their leading competitor Costco -- but that seems clear:

"We are lowering the costs to make health insurance more affordable," said a Wal-Mart spokesman, Dan Fogleman, who declined to comment on how much the plan would cost the company. Asked if the new insurance plan was in response to growing criticism, he said, "It's fair to say we are listening, but more so to our associates than anyone else."

There's no question that, for some Wal-Mart employees, this will be an improvement. But the devil is in the details. Here's how how the Arkansas Daily Blog puts it:

The company deserves points for trying. But ... it's not going to do much for a low-wage family.

First there's a $1,000 deductible to satisfy before you get any coverage ... Then there's $65 a month for family coverage or $780 a year. [the "$11 premium" will only be availble "in some areas.] So a poor family eking by on minimum wage is out, at a minimum, $1,780 a year before it gets any coverage under the Wal-Mart plan and then it still has co-pays.

And then, first-year coverage is capped at $25,000. So, if you enroll, you're betting nearly $2,000 that you'll need more than $2,000 or so in coverage, but less than $25,000. And the health savings account feature is worthless to someone who needs every penny to cover rent, utilities, food and clothing for a family of three or four.

Single-payer universal health insurance is the solution.

In the meantime, we can also follow the lead of the Maryland legislature, which passed the Fair Share Health Care Bill (later vetoed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich-R) to force large employers like Wal-Mart to pay more for health benefits, a short-term but important policy solution that doesn't leave workers needing health coverage at the whim of the CEOs.