updated 9/18/2007 2:37:39 PM ET 2007-09-18T18:37:39

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is adding $4 generic drugs to its health insurance plans and offering lower premiums and deductibles, the third year in a row of changes to employee health benefits that have been a focus of union-led criticism of the nation’s largest private employer.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said the new 2008 plan will add more than 2,400 generic prescriptions at $4 each. That compared with fewer than 20 generic drugs for a co-pay of $3 under the existing plan.

It will also offer premiums on its lowest-priced Value Plan as little as $8 a month nationwide from $24 a month currently. The new lowest-premium plan for individuals has a deductible of $2,000 a year but no maximum on coverage and an upfront credit of $100 before the deductible kicks in.

Since late 2005, Wal-Mart has shortened the waiting period to become eligible for insurance, allowed part-time workers to cover children, lowered premiums and lowered co-pays for prescription drugs.

The result has so far been an incremental rise in workers taking the company plan. As of the start of this year, 47 percent of Wal-Mart’s 1.34 million U.S. employees were enrolled in company coverage, compared with 46 percent a year earlier and 43 percent at the start of 2005.

Wal-Mart has said most of the remainder are insured through other plans, such as a spouse’s or a second job. That justifies its contention that 90 percent of employees have health coverage.

The retailer wants its number of insured workers to increase, Linda Dillman, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of risk management, benefits and sustainability, said in a statement.

“Our health coverage next year will be even stronger, offer more options and give people more tools to help them save money and live better lives,” Dillman said in a statement.

The company’s health coverage has been a focus of union-led critics, who claim that Wal-Mart skimps on benefits.

An internal company memo leaked to unions and the media in October 2005 conceded that the company was vulnerable to criticism because its health plans at the time were expensive for low-income workers with families.

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