BOISE – The speaker of the state House of Representatives is mulling a proposal that could require businesses to either provide employees with insurance or reimburse Idaho for publicly funded health care costs.
Medicaid costs have grown tenfold since 1990 and now account for about 14 percent of state spending.
To try to reverse the trend, Rep. Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, is proposing that employers buy health insurance for their workers or pay the state to offset Medicaid costs.
Newcomb’s target: Wal-Mart.
He cites a 2002 Georgia study that he said shows employees at the world’s largest retailer disproportionately benefit from publicly funded health care, compared to workers at other businesses.
“Rather than taxpayers subsidizing the wealthiest family in the world, maybe the wealthiest family in the world ought to reimburse Medicaid,” Newcomb told the Idaho Statesman.
The Georgia study found that for every four Wal-Mart workers, one dependent child was enrolled in 2002 in the state health care program, PeachCare, accounting for 10,261 of the 166,000 children covered. Employees of rival Publix Supermarket enrolled just one dependent child for every 22 workers, according to the study.
In 2001, just over half of the 50,000 businesses in Idaho didn’t offer health insurance. The number of uninsured Idahoans has grown 26 percent since 2000. About a fifth of Idaho residents, or 252,000, have no health insurance, and more than four-fifths of the people in that category were working.
Last week, Newcomb wrote Idaho Health and Welfare Director Karl Kurtz, asking if he could conduct a study similar to one done in Georgia.
Newcomb wants to see if Wal-Mart employees rely on Idaho’s welfare program, Children’s Health Insurance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, more than employees at other grocery stores.
“You can’t target Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is the one that’s raising everybody’s ire,” Newcomb said. “It appears they are the best at transferring costs to the public sector. But you have to look at the grand scheme, because everybody’s looking at the Wal-Mart model in order to compete.”
Efforts to contact Wal-Mart were unsuccessful.
But in a press release from June on its Web site addressing the issue, the company said it was unfair to single out individual companies – especially Wal-Mart, which provides 1.2 million jobs and insurance for 900,000 workers and their family members.
“We remain eager to work with legislators and all interested parties to make health care more affordable to everyone,” a statement from the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said.
Newcomb and Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, also are studying a measure passed by the Maryland Legislature in 2005. Had it not been vetoed by that state’s governor, the measure would have required large employers to spend at least 8 percent of total wages on health care.
In 2004, Stennett authored a failed bill to require companies doing business with the state to provide insurance to at least 80 percent of workers. Even though Stennett’s effort died in committee, he’s looking to Newcomb to help win bipartisan backing.
The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which represents the state’s business community, would likely oppose mandating benefits.
“We think decisions about whether to offer health care benefits and the kind of benefits to provide should be left to employers based upon the needs of their employees and the market,” said Teresa Molitor, IACI’s vice president of human resources.
Still, Don Reading, a Boise economist, said uncovering costs of publicly funded health insurance might persuade businesses that reform could save them money.
“It may help many businesses in the long run,” Reading said. “They have to pay taxes that support health and welfare services. Those costs may go down more than providing workers a livable wage and benefits.”
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