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Walmart's New Health Care Policy Shifts Burden To Medicaid, Obamacare

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WALMART HEALTH CARE POLICY
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Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours -- something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

Walmart declined to disclose how many of its roughly 1.4 million U.S. workers are vulnerable to losing medical insurance under its new policy. In an emailed statement, company spokesman David Tovar said Walmart had “made a business decision” not to respond to questions from The Huffington Post and accused the publication of unfair coverage.

Labor and health care experts portrayed Walmart’s decision to exclude workers from its medical plans as an attempt to limit costs while taking advantage of the national health care reform known as Obamacare. Among the key features of Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, the taxpayer-financed health insurance program for poor people. Many of the Walmart workers who might be dropped from the company’s health care plans earn so little that they would qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, these experts said.

“Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan, which is one of the problems with the way the law is structured,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

For Walmart, this latest policy represents a step back in time. Almost seven years ago, as Walmart confronted public criticism that its employees couldn't afford its benefits, the company announced with much fanfare that it would expand health coverage for part-time workers.

But last year, the company eliminated coverage for some part-time workers -- those new hires working 24 hours a week or less. Now, Walmart is going further.

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“Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.”

In pursuing lower health care costs, Walmart is following the same course as many other large employers. But given its unrivaled scale, Walmart’s policies tend to influence American working conditions more broadly. Tom Billet, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, a professional services firm that works with large companies to develop benefit plans, said other companies are also crafting policies that will exclude some part-time workers from medical coverage.

Billet portrayed the growing corporate interest in separating out part-time workers as a reaction to another aspect of Obamacare -- the new rules that require companies with at least 50 full-time workers to offer health coverage to all employees who work 30 or more hours a week or pay penalties.

Several employers in recent months, including Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and a New York-area Applebee’s franchise owner, said they are considering cutting employee hours to push more workers below the 30-hour threshold.

“In the past, firms were less careful about monitoring whether someone was full- or part-time,” Billet said, noting that some of his clients were planning to track workers’ hours more carefully. “I expect health plans like Walmart’s won’t be uncommon as firms adjust to this law.”

For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.

The company has said the scheduling system improves flexibility and efficiency. But in recent interviews with The Huffington Post, several workers described their oft-changing schedules as a source of fear that they might earn too little to pay their bills. Many said they have begged managers to assign them additional hours only to see their shifts cut further as new workers were hired.

The new plan detailed in the 2013 "Associate’s Benefits Book" adds another element to that fear: the risk of losing health coverage. According to the plan, part-time workers hired in or after 2011 are now subject to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August, during which managers will review the average number of hours per week that workers have logged over the past year.

If part-time workers hired after Feb. 1, 2012, fail to reach the 30-hour threshold, they will lose benefits the following January, according to the book. Part-time workers hired after Jan. 15, 2011, but before Feb. 1, 2012, must work at least 24 hours a week to retain coverage and will also be subject to an eligibility check each year. Those hired before 2011 aren’t subject to the minimum hours requirements or eligibility checks.

As for full-time workers under the plan, those who lose hours and slip to part-time at any point during the year will see their spouses’ health coverage dropped immediately. Those workers will also lose their dental and life insurance policies in the following pay period, according to the plan.

Some Walmart workers who are excluded from the company’s health care plans are likely to become eligible for Medicaid under the Obamacare expansion, which aims to replace a patchwork of standards now set by individual states with one minimum federal threshold -- income below 133 percent of the federal poverty line, which for an individual currently comes to $14,856. However, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the decision to expand the program is voluntary for the states. At least eight states, including Texas, have said they will not expand the program, which would leave Walmart workers there with one less option.

Part-time workers who lose their Walmart insurance but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid should be able to buy insurance through the health care exchanges to be established under Obamacare -- essentially, online marketplaces offering an array of health care plans.

For workers who do qualify for health coverage under Walmart's new policy, the latest package represents an upgrade over previous plans. Walmart’s health plans began covering 100 percent of spine and heart surgeries this year at select hospitals and medical centers. They also include a smattering of preventative care services required by Obamacare.

But the company’s plans still leave many workers facing significant financial distress in the event of major illness. Under the new policy, one major offering, the so-called Health Reimbursement Account Plan, costs nonsmoking workers $34.80 a month -- a seemingly affordable sum. Yet it comes with an annual deductible of $2,750, a hefty expense given that half of Walmart’s hourly workforce earns no more than $10 an hour.

While a shifting of Walmart employees to Medicaid rolls may increase the burden on American taxpayers, it is likely to be a better deal for the workers themselves.

“The packages Walmart is providing for low-income people aren’t offering very much coverage except for catastrophes,” said Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “It’s likely they’ll be better off going with a government-sponsored plan.”

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