Add the state of Wisconsin to the growing list of states across the country that have discovered an uncomfortable truth: public tax dollars are supporting health care coverage for the world’s largest retailer, creating a welfare subsidy that helps lower the company’s cost of business even as they make billions in profits. According to a report this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin’s halth care program for the working poor, BadgerCare, spends millions of dollars annually providing health care benefits to companies like Wal-Mart, whose workers turn to public programs for health care. According to a new report from the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, state taxpayers are losing $6.4 million to pay for the top 10 employers with the most participants in BadgerCare, and of the top 10 companies, Wal-Mart made up more than 40% of the workers on the dole. The state, meanwhile, is running a $650 million budget gap in Medicaid over the next two years. State officials claim that businesses are making their own health care plans more expensive for workers, encouraging low wage workers to just apply for Medicaid or other state assisted health care programs instead. “They’re always looking for ways to save costs,” the head of Wisconsin’s Health and Family Services office told the Journal. “That’s not just bad for the state, but bad for the business themselves to make that choice,” because employees want to work for companies that provide good benefits. BadgerCare was created for residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, but who are still considered among the ‘working poor’. Any citizen with income below $17,704 for an individual and up to $35,797 for a family of four, can get on BadgerCare. A family would not qualify if it has access to a group health insurance plan for which the employer pays at least 80% of the cost. “(Employers) are now building business models around paying employees as little as possible, providing few benefits and expecting taxpayers to pick up the tab,” a representative of the Service Employees International Union, Wisconsin State Council, told the newspaper. The state report shows that Wal-Mart topped the list of cost-shifters, with 809 of its employees and 443 of employee dependents enrolled in the state program in April. Providing health care for those 1,252 people costs Wisconsin about $2.7 million a year. Wal-Mart made more than $10 billion in profits this past year, and could easily afford to give its workers a decent, affordable health care plan. A Wal-Mart spokesman said his company picks up one-third of the total premium cost for their insurance. Full-time employees coverage kicks in after 180 days, but part-time employees must wait for two years. But these plans have high deductibles, so if a worker signs up for the plan, they face large out of pocket expenses — more than most can afford. Wal-Mart claims that 70% of its employees were on Medicaid before they came to Wal-Mart, but such company surveys are unsubstantiated. “Let me be very clear we do not design our plans to be supplemented by public assistance programs, nor do we encourage our associates to apply for them,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. Legislation has been filed by Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) and Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) that would require Wal-Mart and other companies to pay more for employee’s health care or reimburse the state for the cost of covering their employees. This legislation is modeled on a bill that Maryland’s Governor vetoed just over a week ago.
For other stories about Wal-Mart workers on public health plans, search Newsflash by “health care.” Critics have charged that Wal-Mart counsels its workers on how to find and apply for Medicaid and other state plans. On one level, it doesn’t matter if Wal-Mart pushes its workers towards Medicaid style programs, or whether the workers find their way to the front door without prompting. The cost to the taxpayers is the same. The public is paying tens of millions of dollars a year to prop up the Wal-Mart business model, which provides low-wage, low-benefit jobs in order to keep the price of underwear cheap enough to take business away from other merchants. More of the hidden cost to us all of shopping at Wal-Mart.