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The New York Times reports this morning that Wal-Mart is undergoing a major overhaul of its health care programs.

According to the story, “The company, according to data available for the first time, is offering better coverage to a greater number of workers. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, provides insurance to 100,000 more workers than it did just three years ago — and it is now easier for many to sign up for health care at Wal-Mart than at its rival, Target, whose reputation glows in comparison.

“Wal-Mart has hardly become a standard-bearer for corporate America: it still insures fewer than half its 1.4 million employees in the United States.

“But the changes in its policies have accomplished what once seemed impossible. Many of its most ardent critics have put down their pitchforks. Andrew L. Stern, whose Service Employees International Union set up an advocacy group to attack Wal-Mart three years ago, now concedes that ‘there is clearly a focus on covering more people’.”

And, the Times suggests, this change in approach could have national implications that go beyond Wal-Mat’s bottom line:

“In one sign of its success so far, the company has pushed down the price of 2,400 generic prescription drugs to $4 a month for employees, starting next year, a program that it offers, in more limited form, to its customers.

“Now, the chain is even considering weight-loss clinics in its 4,000 stores and is toying with the idea of selling health insurance, hoping to finally bring coverage within reach of most Americans.”

KC's View:
The irony of Wal-Mart getting into the health insurance business is enormous, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The more it can do to drive down health care costs nationally, the better able it will be to afford better health care coverage for more of its employees. Though you can probably expect that the insurance industry, taking a page from the financial services industry, will mount a campaign to get legislation to prevent Wal-Mart from making any such move.

Based on the theme of this Times story, you can probably expect that any time there will be a letter from the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) calling on Lee Scott to cut back on health care coverage for employees because it is cutting into the company’s profit. This same letter will probably maintain that there is no health care crisis in this country, and that if some poor people get sick and die because they don't have health care coverage, well, that is just the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest.

(By the way, just as a legal point, it should be noted that this phraseology and characterization of NLPC’s attitudes is satire, and therefore protected free speech.)