updated 4/17/2006 4:00:38 PM ET 2006-04-17T20:00:38

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Monday it would expand health coverage next month to include as many as 150,000 part-time employees after they have worked for the company for one year.

Until now, the employees have had to work for Wal-Mart for two years to qualify. The coverage also will extend to the employees’ children.

The changes were announced at the World Health Care Congress by one of the company’s vice presidents, Susan Chambers.

The company has been strongly criticized by unions and others for a health plan that critics say is lacking. However, Chambers said Wal-Mart’s health insurance costs have risen at a rate of 19 percent annually over the past three years.

“Every Wal-Mart associate, both full- and part-time, will get coverage after no more than 12 months, no matter how many hours they’ve worked,” Chambers said.

She said the version of the health plan that the company expected most employees to sign up for would be available for $23 a month. Workers’ children would be included for $15 more, whatever the size of the family.

“Keep in mind that covering part-time employees is not the norm in retail,” Chambers said.

Unions contend that the company’s benefits are too small, forcing taxpayers to pick up more of the cost as the workers lacking coverage turn to the government for help.

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