Courtesy of the Maryland state Legislature, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, will have to devote more money to its employees’ health care in the state. Overriding a veto, the Maryland General Assembly voted in January to require all large employers in the state to devote 8 percent of their payroll to health care. Here in Michigan, State Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor) hopes Maryland’s recent move will provide a push to a similar bill he introduced in September. Bills like Maryland’s will help some low-income workers receive the health care they deserve, but the legislation is far from perfect. Only a federally backed, universal health care system will guarantee all Americans access to health insurance.

Sarah Royce

The Maryland bill is part of a nationwide campaign active in over 30 states, coordinated by the AFL-CIO, to require large employers to spend a minimum percentage of their payroll on health-care costs. While such legislation would affect employers other than Wal-Mart in many states, the retail giant is clearly the most prominent case of a corporation that has refused to provide its employees with adequate health coverage. Wal-Mart’s business model thrives by cutting costs wherever possible. This practice includes providing inadequate health insurance for employees, many of whom are paid so little that if they and their children do receive health insurance, it’s at taxpayer expense through Medicaid.

Proponents of Fair Share Health Care legislation hope to improve employees’ access to health care by leveling the playing field between large, unethical companies such as Wal-Mart and more responsible corporations that do spend adequately on employee health care. It is not clear, however, that legislation like Maryland’s will have the effect its backers seek. There’s no guarantee that the seemingly arbitrary percentage of payroll that these laws mark for health care will actually be sufficient to provide adequate insurance, especially for employers such as Wal-Mart that pay low average wages. Employers may be tempted to defer pay raises – or even cut their employees’ pay – to meet the required fraction of payroll. The legislation only affects large employers, leaving smaller businesses free to deny their employees health coverage.

Certainly, passing the bill Basham introduced would help some Michigan workers. Action on the plan Gov. Jennifer Granholm outlined in her State of the State address last month to provide coverage to more than half of the state’s uninsured would help others. Additional measures to cut down the number of Americans who lack health insurance – currently well over 40 million – aren’t terribly difficult to imagine.

But the increasing difficulty even many people who work full-time have finding jobs that provide health insurance suggests the problem may ultimately lie with our nation’s system of employer-provided health insurance. A government-run, single-payer insurance program that covers every American would not only be fairer, but would do away with the waste associated with a private health insurance market where insurance companies compete to avoid insuring those with existing health conditions. Measures like Bashm’s bill are a start to chipping away at the vast number of uninsured, but it will take a government-backed drastic overhaul of the health-care system to ensure that every American receives the preventive care and treatment to which he has a right.

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