Wal-mart: Most workers insured


Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 9:05 p.m.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, said Tuesday that for the first time in its 46-year history more than half its U.S. workers had enrolled in the company's health insurance plan, a milestone for a retailer long criticized as offering unaffordable benefits.

The discount retailer said that after it introduced a revised health plan last fall, the number of workers who signed up reached 690,970, or 50.2 percent of its nearly 1.4 million employees.

The higher enrollment is expected to help blunt criticism from unions and political groups that have focused on the fact that half the company's workers lacked health insurance. Wal-Mart's enrollment now significantly exceeds that of its archrival Target, which provides health insurance to an estimated 40 percent of its work force.

After several years of intensive research and debate within Wal-Mart the chain introduced last fall what was considered its most flexible and generous health plan, effective for the calendar year 2008.

The plan offered deductibles ranging from $350 to $2,000 for individuals. Employees could choose plans with health care "credits'' to use for routine care and obtain 2,400 generic prescription drugs for $4 apiece.

Wal-Mart also eliminated fees like $150 monthly for covering a spouse and cut out separate deductibles, like an additional $1,000 for a hospital stay.

A family can pay as little as $250 a year in premiums if it is willing to shoulder a $4,000 deductible and be responsible for as much as $10,000 in medical bills, roughly the same plan that cost $1,500 a few years ago.

Critics still contend the plan is out of reach for many Wal-Mart workers, who earn, on average, less than $20,000 a year. They point to deductibles of up to $2,000 for individuals, about 10 percent of an average Wal-Mart worker's income.

But thousands of workers have enrolled. Wal-Mart said 30,000 workers who signed up for its coverage for 2008 were previously uninsured.

One big reason for the uptick: Wal-Mart has reduced the waiting period before a new part-time worker can enroll in its health plan, from two years to one.

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