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March 04, 2005
Workers at Wal-Mart, Other Companies, Rely on State-Subsidized Insurance

Connecticut lawmakers were outraged Thursday to learn that a state program meant to help poor families is footing the healthcare bills of workers for some major companies, led by Wal-Mart.

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For families under the poverty level, Connecticut's HUSKY program provides free health care for parents and children. At higher income limits, which depend on the size of the family, the so-called HUSKY B program offers co-payments of $5 for a medical office visit, $3 for a generic prescription, and $6 for a brand-name prescription.

A report given to lawmakers Thursday says the program is paying an estimated $43 million annually to cover workers at Connecticut's top 25 major employers, according the Hartford Courant.

Nearly half of the estimated total covers the top five employers, including Wal-Mart, Stop & Shop, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's--all highly profitable companies.

Lawmakers reserved much of their ire for Wal-Mart. The retailer has 1,028 employees in the HUSKY program, or 11.3 percent of its workers in the state.

"Here is the richest retail company in the world, and we, the taxpayers, are subsidizing their coverage," said House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan. "I think people aren't aware of the extent that we're subsidizing the biggest, richest, most powerful companies. Wal-Mart shoppers need to know there's an extra cost of doing business."

Donovan said that the state should consider writing a letter to Wal-Mart, asking it to pay back the money in the same way that homeowners pay various taxes or sewer assessment fees.

In an interview with the Courant, a Wal-Mart spokesman rejected the notion that the company is shifting the responsibility to the state for providing health coverage for the retailer's workers.

"We don't design our plans to be supplemented by public assistance," the spokesman, Dan Fogleman, said. "Nor do we encourage our associates to apply for these programs."

But the Courant noted that a congressional report issued last year found that Wal-Mart had increased the health-benefit waiting period for its full-time workers. In 2002, the waiting period jumped from 90 days to six months. By comparison, the report found, the average waiting period for employers the size of Wal-Mart was 1.3 months.

The report also found that Wal-Mart changed the definition of part-time in 2002, raising it to 34 hours or fewer a week, up from 28 hours or fewer - a stricter definition than many companies.

Part-time workers must wait two years to apply for health coverage and they cannot add a spouse or children.

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