Wal-Mart's health care stance draws ire

A Wal-Mart in Panorama City, Calif.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The top story in Washington today was the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. But there were some rumblings in the health-care debate. Not in the usually polite language of the political processs, either. A couple of weeks ago Wal-Mart said it thinks companies should be required to provided health insurance for their employees. That's what's known as an employer-mandate.

Today the National Retail Federation -- of which Wal-Mart is pointedly not a member -- took very public exception to that position. Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson has more.


JEREMY HOBSON: Even without Wal-Mart, the National Retail Federation, or NRF, represents 1.6 million businesses. It thinks it has a big enough army to go head-to-head with the largest retailer in the country.

NEIL TRAUTWEIN: We'll fight with them where we have to fight with them, we'll work with them where we can.

That's NRF spokesman Neil Trautwein. He says requiring employers to provide health care is untenable, because it would force businesses to raise prices to cover costs.

TRAUTWEIN: Retail is an extremely labor-intensive industry, and we're not able to increase prices in the midst of this recession. In fact, we're discounting to get foot traffic into our stores.

Wal-Mart isn't having much trouble getting traffic into its stores. But Charles Fishman, author of "The Wal-Mart Effect," says that's not why it's pushing employer-mandated health care. He says the reason is that Wal-Mart already insures more of its employees than its competitors do -- 52 percent of Wal-Mart's U.S. workers are covered; other retailers average 45 percent.

CHARLES FISHMAN: They'd like the federal government to help level the playing field. They don't want to provide better health insurance than everyone else, because that costs them money that their competitors then don't end up spending.

Wal-Mart wouldn't talk to us on tape. But a spokesman said the current health-care situation is unsustainable. So far, the National Retail Federation hasn't endorsed any Congressional plan to fix the nation's health-care system.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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