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Wal-Mart and unions unite on health care

Executives from Wal-Mart and three other large U.S. employers on Wednesday joined union leaders in calling for “quality, affordable” health care for every American by 2012.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Executives from Wal-Mart and three other large U.S. employers on Wednesday joined union leaders in calling for “quality, affordable” health care for every American by 2012.

However, they did not propose any specific policies to achieve this goal, or commit to spending any extra money in the near-term to provide health coverage to more workers.

Joining Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Lee Scott and Service Employees International Union leader Andrew Stern at a Washington press conference were top executives from Intel Corp., AT&T Inc. and Kelly Services Inc., a temporary staffing agency. Yet some critics of Wal-Mart’s health care policy remained unsatisfied.

“2012 is a still long way away. What about now?” said Dana Rezaie, a widow with three children who works nights stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart store in Fridley, Minn.

The partnership of business and union leaders laid out four main goals, including universal health-care coverage for all Americans and boosting the value of every U.S. dollar spent on health care. The business and union leaders’ coalition, dubbed “Better Health Care Together,” pledged to convene a national summit by the end of May to recruit others from the private sector, labor, government and non-profits.

“Government alone won’t and can’t solve this crisis,” Scott said. “By following this campaign’s common sense principles, we believe America can have high quality, affordable and accessible health care by 2012.”

But Scott and others did not provide a detailed plan. In response to a reporter’s question, Scott said Wal-Mart is not committed to spending more on health care or making any immediate promises to provide health coverage to more workers.

The business executives did say that any universal coverage in the U.S. must be flexible enough to give consumers choices about their coverage, unlike plans in some foreign nations.

Stern said the SEIU would continue to fund its Wal-Mart Watch campaign, which as recently as last month said Wal-Mart’s health plans were a raw deal for employees. Stern said he expects to be criticized for teaming up with Wal-Mart, but that he felt it was in the best interest of workers who lack coverage, and their families.

Stern said he and Scott first met face-to-face to discuss the partnership “around the holidays.”

Joseph T. Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, was critical of other union leaders for teaming up with Wal-Mart.

“It’s not appropriate to take the stage with a company that refuses to remedy its mistreatment of workers,” Hansen said in a prepared statement. The union he represents funds the WakeUpWalMart campaign, which challenged the company to immediately provide health care to all of its uninsured employees and their families.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based company, which employs more than 1.3 million U.S. workers, has made several changes to its health care policy since 2005, including lowering premiums and shortening eligibility periods.

Yet Scott said Wednesday he would not withhold financial support from lawmakers and candidates who oppose universal health care. WakeUpWalMart spokesman Chris Kofinis called that stance “hypocritical,” pointing out that Scott blamed politics as the main reason the nation lacked universal health care.

“Anybody can say they support something. They need to show they really do,” said Rezaie, a six-year Wal-Mart employee who says she cannot afford the company’s existing health plan and instead relies on state-funded care. WakeUpWalMart supplied Rezaie’s name to The Associated Press.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a longtime universal health care advocate, said the coalition’s announcement was further evidence of broad agreement on the issue.

Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health policy, was more sanguine. “This is a historic collection of strange bedfellows that have united behind a set of principles, not a concrete plan,” Altman said.

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, a member of the coalition, said business and union leaders already plan to meet with officials at the White House, on Capitol Hill and with state governors to transform its principles into action.