Report Cites Mass. Employers with Workers in State Health Pools

By | February 3, 2006

Thousands of workers employed by some of the state’s top retailers, restaurants and hospitals in Massachusetts are relying on taxpayers to pick up the tab for their health care, according to a report released this week.

The state spent nearly $213 million on health care for nearly 160,000 workers and their dependents through the Medicaid and free care pool programs during the 2005 fiscal year, according to the analysis.

Wal-Mart, Stop & Shop, and McDonald’s top the list, which also includes Massachusetts General Hospital, the city of Boston, and the University of Massachusetts.

The release of the report comes as lawmakers are trying to craft a bill to dramatically expand health care coverage in Massachusetts. Under a proposal backed by the House, companies that don’t provide health insurance to workers would be required to pay a payroll tax.

“This report demonstrates the need for us to reform our health care system to make sure there are affordable health care products,” said Timothy Murphy, secretary of health and human services, whose office compiled the report.

Murphy said the report doesn’t distinguish between full- and part-time workers, or workers who declined to enroll in company-sponsored insurance plans. He said the vast majority of companies offered insurance plans to full-time workers.

Wal-Mart topped the list. According to the report, 2,866 people who relied on MassHealth or the state’s free care pool said they worked for Wal-Mart. The estimated taxpayer cost to provide health care to those workers and their dependents: $7.9 million.

A company spokesman defended the retail giant’s record on employee health coverage.

“Wal-Mart provides health insurance to full and part-time associates. For many associates, a job at Wal-Mart means new access to health coverage,” said Nate Hurst, said Wal-Mart spokesman.

A spokesman for Stop & Shop said the supermarket chain spends nearly $55 million annually in on medical, dental, prescription and vision coverage for their workers.

A similar report released last year pegged the cost to taxpayers at about $52 million, but Murphy said his office used a different methodology, making it hard to compare that number to the $212 million figure.

Health Care advocates said the new report bolsters their argument that many big companies aren’t doing enough to provide health care coverage.

“It absolutely affirms the need for public policies to protect taxpayers from companies who deliberately shift responsibility for the health needs of their workers onto the backs of taxpayers,” said John McDonough of Health Care for All. “Every company on this list needs to take a second look at what’s going on with health care benefits.”

Businesses say they support efforts to expand health care, but oppose the payroll tax proposal.

“This should not be used to stigmatize individual companies when it is a more societal problem,” said Robert Ruddock, general counsel for Associated Industries of Massachusetts. He said health care should remain a benefit, not a mandate. “That’s like saying you buy food with your salary so employers should provide workers with food.”

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