Wal-Mart throws a curveball

WAL-MART THROWS A CURVEBALL…. Three powerful entities announced their support yesterday for including an employer mandate provision in health care reform, a major point of contention in the larger debate. The first two — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Center for American Progress — didn’t come as much of a surprise. The third was Wal-Mart.

Yes, that Wal-Mart — the commercial behemoth and the nation’s largest private employer, with a reputation for being less than concerned about employee benefits.

The National Retail Federation, a staunch opponent of an employer mandate, was reportedly “flabbergasted” by the Wal-Mart announcement. Likewise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was livid. The Hill noted, “The decision by Wal-Mart to break away from the Chamber and its ilk marks the first visible crack in the business coalition on healthcare reform.”

Jonathan Cohn describes how this changes the landscape.

By endorsing the idea of a employer mandate, Wal-Mart has made the idea more difficult to demonize. It has also — and I can’t stress this enough — given some political cover to members of Congress who might be sympathetic to the idea of employer mandate but hesitate to take a vote that might be perceived as anti-business.

Remember, there’s a huge difference between voting for something all businesses oppose and voting for one that includes among its supporters a huge, iconic corporation.

Naturally, Wal-Mart insisted upon a condition: In the letter, it calls for the “strongest possible commitment to rein in health care costs.” But Wal-Mart has helped advance that cause, too, by putting the company’s imprimatur on two solid, specific proposals.

One, which Senator Jay Rockefeller has been championing lately, would strengthen the power of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) to guide the way Medicare pays for medical services. The other, which comes from the Bipartisan Policy Center, would create a “trigger” mechanism; basically, if health industry groups couldn’t deliver savings they’ve promised, automatic payment reductions would ensue.

Igor Volsky described it as “a win-win” for reform advocates: “The nation’s largest employer has embraced a mechanism that enhances the existing system of employer-based coverage, levels the playing field between employers and preserves the employer contribution — an important source of funding for health care reform. In turn, it has requested that we guarantee cost reductions and steer clear of a policy that undermines low-wage workers. Let’s hope the Senate Finance Committee is listening.”