Health bill is up for debate

At conference, firms support Wal-Mart law veto, top Democrats vow to override it


CAMBRIDGE -- Despite opposition from Republicans and business leaders, the two top Democrats in the General Assembly vowed yesterday to override the governor's veto of a bill that would force Wal-Mart to pay more for its workers' health care.

Discussion of the bill dominated the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's annual conference here yesterday, with the business group making support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto one of its highest priorities for the coming legislative session.

But Democratic leaders said putting the bill into law would make an important statement about Maryland's standards for corporate citizenship.

"Do you stand up for the good corporate citizens of Maryland ... or do you let somebody come into Maryland and take advantage of the schools and the health care system and make all the other businesses pay for the health care of their employees?" said House Speaker Michael E. Busch during a panel discussion about the state's business climate.

The calls for an override, and equally strong statements in support of Ehrlich's veto, came after a New York Times report about an internal Wal-Mart memorandum in which a company official admitted that the retailer's critics had valid complaints about its health offerings and acknowledged that many of the company's employees receive public health care assistance or go uninsured.

The memo also suggested the company take steps to lower its health costs, such as hiring younger and thinner employees who would have fewer health problems.

"What the hell does that say about the business and its dedication to its employees?" Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told a room full of business people at the chamber conference. "The state of Maryland has to pay $2,000 a year to subsidize each of their employees."

The group Marylanders for Health Care, which helped lead the effort to pass the bill in this year's legislative session, pounced on the memo yesterday, issuing a statement saying that Ehrlich should reconsider his opposition.

"This has really strengthened the override movement," said Vincent DeMarco, one of the group's leaders. "I think legislators were going to stick by us anyway, but I think this really solidifies it."

But the ardor of opponents in the business community and the legislature was not dimmed by the news, in large part because they see the bill as a first step to requiring all employers to spend a certain amount on health care.

The bill would require all companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care. If they don't, they would have to pay the difference to the state's Medicaid program. Wal-Mart isn't mentioned in the bill, but it is the only company of that size in the state that doesn't meet the 8 percent threshold.

Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Snyder said the memo and an announcement last week that Wal-Mart will offer a new, lower-cost health plan to its employees are evidence that the private sector will act on its own to offer appropriate benefits without government interference.

"Good for Wal-Mart that they're taking a look at their own policies," Snyder said.

The issue creates some division in the business community because some Wal-Mart competitors fear it will put companies that offer generous benefits at a disadvantage. One of the biggest proponents of the bill was Giant Foods, which company officials say pays more than 20 percent of its payroll for employee health benefits.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican who led the opposition to the bill in the Senate, said the bill represents a philosophical shift in how the state pays for health care and the degree to which it regulates private business practices.

"We would be the first state in the country to mandate health care for a business, and that's not something we should be a leader in," Pipkin said.

"Once we pass this bill, 10,000 employees is going to become 5,000, is going to become 1,000, is going to become 500," he said. "Voila! Single-payer health care system, one slice at a time, coming in through the back door."

The veto override would be one of the first orders of business for the legislature when it meets in January. Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate Republican leader from the Eastern Shore, said he expects that people who voted for the bill might have a harder time supporting an override. Wal-Mart has stalled plans to bring a distribution center to Somerset County, and Stoltzfus said the override will be "a make-or-break vote" for delegates from the area.

Those sorts of election-year politics will make much more of a difference in the debate than any memos from Wal-Mart, Stoltzfus said. "I think this Wal-Mart bill is going to be crucial for the re-election of a number of people."

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