Howard County Democrats are eager to restart the discussion about whether retail giant Wal-Mart should pay more for employee health care in Maryland, judging from debates at two candidate forums this week for General Assembly candidates.
County Executive James N. Robey, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in District 13, raised the issue at both forums, one held by the North Laurel Civic Association Tuesday night and the second by the League of Women Voters at Howard Community College Wednesday, which also was televised.
"It's simply not fair for Wal-Mart to provide no insurance or, more recently, some insurance that leaves their people to be treated in our emergency rooms," Robey said at the college forum.
The previous night, at Murray Hill Middle School, he said that "you and I pay" through Maryland's Medicaid system when those uninsured employees get sick and seek care they can't pay for.
He and several other Democrats, including Del. Shane Pendergrass, said they would work, if elected, to rewrite the Fair Share Health Care bill that required all companies with more than 10,000 employees and doing business in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care or pay the difference to Medicaid. Wal-Mart is the only company that would be affected.
Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, also from District 13, said, "Wal-Mart made $10 billion last year. Why should Maryland have to pay for medical insurance for employees?"
The bill was approved by the General Assembly, and the legislators overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but the measure was struck down by a federal court.
Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader fought back, asserting that "Wal-Mart does offer health insurance," though she conceded that the company doesn't have the best coverage. She argued that the bill lumped together all store employees, whether full- or part-time, making the provision unfair.
"When you start to legislate companies, we're in trouble. It's a very dangerous way to go," she said at the college.
Mary Beth Tung, a Republican candidate for a District 13 seat in the House of Delegates, backed Schrader. Tung said the bill was one of three the legislature passed over Ehrlich vetoes that later were found unconstitutional.
"Do you really want the legislature running your business?" Tung asked. She suggested that Democrats' advocacy for Wal-Mart employees' health care is "out of synch" with their support for allowing illegal immigrants to get various state benefits.
District 12 Del. Elizabeth Bobo said she sees the growing number of people without health insurance as part of the more general problem of a growing gap between rich and poor.
Loretta Gaffney, another District 13 Republican candidate, tried to strike a more conciliatory note, saying that "the better question is how to get health care for all."
District 12 state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer has said a bill providing health insurance for all Maryland residents is a goal for him next year if he's re-elected.
Rick Bowers, the third District 13 Republican, said that "health care should be within reach of all Marylanders," though he too opposed the idea of a law forcing large companies to provide coverage.
"It will trickle down to mom and pop stores. I don't think it should be legislated," he said.
Two District 9 Democratic hopefuls - state Senate candidate Rich Corkran, a teacher, and David Ozmundson, a retired federal employee running for a delegate's seat - also said they favor broader health insurance coverage.
Incumbent District 9 state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, backed by fellow Republican Dels. Warren E. Miller and Gail H. Bates, said the real problem is a growing dearth of physicians, caused, Kittleman said, by the fear of lawsuits and the legislature's unwillingness to enact meaningful tort reform.
Miller said another cause of rising health care costs is the General Assembly's removal of a 2 percent tax discount for health maintenance organizations, with the money going to ensure malpractice coverage.
Democrats said removing that subsidy was the right thing to do because it took away a preference for profitable HMOs and leveled the playing field.