Politics & Government

Bill targets state health care costs

Labor unions are once again targeting large businesses that have workers on government health care programs, but opponents and a key lawmaker say their proposals are out of step with the Legislature's larger health-care plans.

The labor-backed measures, which got initial hearings Tuesday at the Legislature, would essentially bill businesses with more than 1,000 workers for having employees on Medicaid or the state's Basic Health program, with some exceptions.

Union leaders say they're hoping the companion House and Senate bills could figure into the legislative session's health care policy debate, which has been highlighted by wide-ranging plans from Gov. Chris Gregoire.

"We can't turn our backs on what appears to be a business model of dumping costs onto the taxpayers," said Casey Corr, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

But critics, including Wal-Mart and other businesses, say the bills are unfair and not likely to be part of the Legislature's final health-care package.

"The sense that I've gotten from leadership is that this is not going anywhere," said Jennifer Holder, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

The measures heard Tuesday would make exceptions for seasonal businesses, probationary workers and those moving from welfare to work. Affected businesses could be assessed financial penalties if they don't help cover the public health costs for qualifying workers.

The bills follow last session's furious lobbying campaign for a measure that would have mandated a minimum level of health-care spending by large employers. That bill was aimed squarely at Wal-Mart, part of a push by organized labor in more than 30 states to force minimum health-care spending by employers.

But the 2006 bill had powerful opposition, particularly from House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and did not pass. A similar law was passed by Maryland lawmakers, but has since been ruled illegal by two federal courts.

The main sponsors of this year's measures are Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

Supporters pointed Tuesday to state research showing employers with at least 1,000 workers were costing the state $121 million a year to cover nearly 50,000 people and their dependents through Medicaid or Basic Health.

But critics, including Wal-Mart and the Association of Washington Business, defended employers' work to provide health insurance and said they can't force workers who already receive government health care to drop those benefits.

The road ahead for the public health billing plans looks uncertain. House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the measures do not seem to fit with broader plans on health-care reform, including Gregoire's push to provide universal health-care coverage for all Washingtonians by 2012.

"The governor's put forward a plan that everybody's saying is a pretty good plan - even the business community," Kessler said Tuesday.

The measures are Senate Bill 5977 and House Bill 2094.