updated 10/24/2005 12:45:03 PM ET 2005-10-24T16:45:03

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is launching a plan to lower health-insurance premiums for workers, allowing some to buy coverage for as little as $11 per month.

The world's largest retailer has been under criticism for not offering health coverage to enough workers and for high costs to employees who are eligible for insurance. Wal-Mart's critics have worked to demonstrate that some company workers have had to rely on government-funded programs to pay for health care.

Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman would not say how much the plan would cost the company, which has 1.2 million domestic employees. The plan is to go in effect in 2006.

Bentonville-based Wal-Mart said the new plan was not a response to the mounting criticism from outside but instead reflected demands for more coverage options from its employees, who it calls associates.

"Just like at other employers in the U.S., our associates are concerned about the skyrocketing costs of health care," Fogleman said.

Wal-Mart's opponents were not impressed, dismissing the plan as a publicity stunt.

Wake-Up Wal-Mart, a union-backed group that is organizing campaigns against the retailer, said the new plan was just a repackaging of Wal-Mart's existing coverage.

"Wal-Mart fails to address the key reasons more than half of its employees aren't covered under their health care plan _ ridiculously high deductible costs and overly strict eligibility requirements," Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign director Paul Blank said in a news release.

Monthly premiums under the new plan would require workers to pay between 40 percent and 60 percent less than under the current plan. The plan would have a $1,000 deductible but would allow individuals three doctor visits before having to pay the deductible, according to The New York Times, which first reported the plan.

The company said the plan would emphasize preventative care and workers would be able to pay into tax-deductible health savings accounts.

The $11 monthly premium won't be widely available. The plan would have most individuals pay about $25 per month, and $65 for a family. A single parent would pay $37 per month. The plan has a $25,000 cap for a worker's first year with the insurance.

Wal-Mart Watch, a group that has called for Wal-Mart to offer better pay and benefits, said the new health plan is designed to meet the needs of only young, healthy people. Group spokeswoman Tracy Sefl also said it is impractical to expect Wal-Mart workers to be able to afford to pay into health savings accounts.

Shares of Wal-Mart rose 11 cents to $45.83 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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