Basic Health being abused, some say - Lawmakers: Big businesses sponge off plan

February 28, 2003

The Olympian Online

Olympia, WA - Some state lawmakers want to know why Washington taxpayers are subsidizing health care for employees of big businesses such as Wal-Mart and Del Monte.
The state's Basic Health Plan offers low-cost health care to about 125,000 Washington residents who make less than twice the federal poverty level. More than 52,000 enrollees have jobs.

Basic Health has always been touted as a program to help the "working poor," and it has enjoyed bipartisan support over the years. But now some lawmakers say Basic Health is providing big business with an easy way to avoid health care costs, and they want those companies to pay up.

"Why should they be shifting their health care responsibilities to the state?" asked Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma. "The employers are not really stepping up."

The questions are particularly pointed this year, as the state faces a $2.4 billion budget shortfall and contemplates deep cuts in health care programs. The governor's budget proposed cutting 60,000 people off Basic Health to save money.

"As we look at slashing BHP enrollment, all these things have to be on the table," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. She and Conway said it's an issue of fairness -- some businesses dutifully pay for health care benefits, while others avoid the cost by steering their employees toward the state-subsidized Basic Health Plan.

"The state budget is the victim," Keiser said.

Conway and Keiser have both sponsored bills aimed at forcing large employers to pay at least part of the cost for their employees' health care through Basic Health. Neither seemed to have high hopes for the bills becoming law as they're written, but said they wanted to grab employers' attention and bring the issue to light.

Wal-Mart has 341 employees enrolled in the BHP, the most in the state, according to state data. Other large employers with scores of workers on the BHP include fruit growers, temporary agencies and Washington state itself.

Tom Williams, spokesman for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, said he didn't know enough about the legislation to comment. But, he said, of the 75 percent of U.S. Wal-Mart workers who are eligible for health benefits, 62 percent choose to receive company health benefits. The company can't force its workers to accept the benefits package. Nor can the government require companies to offer health benefits.

Conway's House Bill 1830 would force large employers, defined as those with at least 100 full-time workers, to pay 70 percent of the cost of services provided to the Basic Health client.

Keiser's Senate Bill 5704 would require companies whose workers are on the BHP to pay the same amount as the worker pays in premiums.

Basic Health premiums are $10 to $200 a month, depending on age, income and the plan chosen. To qualify, your income must be less than $17,721 a year for a single person, or $36,201 for a family of four.

The program costs the state about $239 million per year.


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