Corporate Benefit Cutters Still Shifting Costs to Taxpayers

October 9th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

walmart_jwj_subsidiesWal-Mart’s recent announcement that it will snatch health coverage away from 30,000 part-timers is not just the latest in a long series of Scrooge-like actions by the giant retailer. It is also a sharp reminder of both the necessity of the Affordable Care Act and the deficiencies of that law.

If we think back to the time before Obamacare became a political lightning rod, we may recall that it was precisely the behavior of corporations such as Wal-Mart that created the need for healthcare reform.

In addition to paying low wages, Wal-Mart had long been criticized for providing inadequate benefits to its employees. In 2003 the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the various ways in which the company kept its spending on health benefits as low as possible. This was explored in more detail in an AFL-CIO study that came out about the same time.

This evidence, combined with reports that the company was encouraging its workers to apply for Medicaid and other government social safety net programs, prompted critics to argue that Wal-Mart was in effect shifting some of its labor costs onto taxpayers. In 2004, the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce published a report estimating that the average Wal-Mart employee used federal safety net programs costing $2,103 per year.

Over the following few years, state governments were encouraged to reveal which employers accounted for the most enrollees (including dependents) in Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and other forms of taxpayer-funded health coverage. For those states that did disclose those lists, Wal-Mart was almost always at or near the top. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First still maintain a compilation of these disclosures, though most of the data is now woefully out of date.

Healthcare reform should have put an end to all this, ideally by creating a system of Medicare for all funded with higher taxes on business. Of course, what we got was something else. Ironically, one of the most positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act – the expansion of Medicaid eligibility in some states – may be increasing the amount of hidden taxpayer costs generated by employers such as Wal-Mart. Yet that’s less important that the extension of those benefits to families desperately in need.

The ACA’s impact on the large portion of the workforce not enrolled in public programs is even more complicated. Although the law depends heavily on private insurance, it does not, strictly speaking, require employers to provide group coverage. Instead, what is often called the law’s employer mandate is a half-baked arrangement that will simply require larger companies (50 or more FTEs) that fail to provide adequate group coverage to pay a penalty.

That penalty is likely to be less than the cost of providing coverage and it will kick in only if at least one full-time employee of a company ends up getting federally subsidized coverage through the state or federal exchanges created by the ACA. It thus appears that companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot that dump part-timers from their plans will be able to avoid the penalties, which in any event are not yet in effect as a result of several postponements by the Obama Administration.

While the ACA is helping more people get coverage, it does nothing to thwart low-road employers from continuing to shift what should be their health coverage costs onto taxpayers. It also appears to do nothing to help us discover which corporations are guilty of this practice, since there are no explicit provisions for making public the coverage reports that large employers will be required to file with the IRS.

Not only does the ACA fail to impose a meaningful employer mandate; it also misses an opportunity to shame those freeloading employers which expect taxpayers to pick up the tab for their failure to provide decent coverage to all their workers.

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