With Friends Like These: Wal-Mart, Health 'Reform’ and Obama’s 'Public Option’

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With Friends Like These: Wal-Mart, Health 'Reform’ and Obama’s 'Public Option’

All you need to really know about the Obama health "reform" initiative is that it is being supported by retail giant Wal-Mart. 

Wal-Mart, a corporation that was built on the philosophy of treating workers like dirt (the company famously locks its employees inside its buildings at night, forces workers who have checked out of their shifts to continue to serve customers, off the clock, if they are asked for help on their way out of the store, has bitterly resisted offering any health benefits, and has one of the worst records of labor law violations of any company in the country), is now signing on as an endorser of the Obama health reform effort, saying: 

"We believe now is the time for action on this vital issue. We commend the leadership of elected officials who are committed to enactment of reform, and we appreciate the commitment to inclusion and transparency which has been present thus far. 

"We are entering a critical time during which all of us who will be asked to pay for health care reform will have to make a choice on whether to support the legislation. This choice will require employers to consider the trade off of agreeing to a coverage mandate and additional taxes versus the promise of reduced health care cost increases." 

Why would a company like Wal-Mart, with its Paleolithic attitude towards its own workers, be supporting a plan that, at least ostensibly, claims to be trying to provide health coverage for the working poor? 

There are several answers. First of all, from a competitive point of view, Wal-Mart probably figures that if there is an employer mandate to provide health benefits, with a hefty fine for those that refuse to comply, the company is in a better position to provide a minimal plan than many of its competitors, like K-Mart or Target.  Second, the company's executives may figure that the so-called "public option" will offer it a cheaper alternative, subsidized by the taxpayer, than existing private insurance plans. This is one valid point of attack from the right on the Obama plan: that a government-run alternative to private insurance would end up being a dumping ground for companies that didn't want to pay for private insurance coverage plans for their workers.   

Finally, Wal-Mart probably figures that the Obama plan is the best way to avoid a move to a single-payer system ala Canada's, which inevitably would be heavily financed by corporate taxes. 

There are few giant corporations in America that are worse than Wal-Mart when it comes to employee relations and treatment of workers, so when you see a company like that coming out in support of any government program—particularly one that is as critically important to the lives of ordinary working people as health care—you should immediately question the value and the intent of that plan. 

The same point can be made about the so called "savings" being offered by various segments of the medical-industrial complex in deals being struck with and touted by the White House (the pharmaceutical industry has promised to cut drug costs to the government and the public by $80 billion over 10 years, while the hospital industry has agreed to offer savings of another $150 billion over the same period).  While these so-called savings are mostly bogus sleight-of-hands (for example, much of the "savings" being offered by the hospital industry consists of reduced government compensation for the treatment of the uninsured in emergency rooms, but of course, if the Obama plan is passed, and insurance coverage is offered to most Americans, there would be far fewer uninsured patients in hospitals anyway), the real reason these big industry sectors are coming on board the Obama plan is that they see it as a way to avoid, or push off to the future, a single-payer system that would dictate all their fees and prices. 

The point is, if the very groups that have created the massively expensive and exclusionary health care system that we have today in America, and that for years have bitterly resisted any efforts to seriously reform it and to make it open to all, regardless of income or medical condition, are suddenly endorsing a plan that purports to be a real, progressive reform, we have to question the premise: that the reform really is real or progressive. 

And the plan being promoted by President Obama and by the Democrats in Congress is not real or progressive. It is a plan that will further enrich the health care industry, that will not stop the continuing rise in health care costs, that will still leave millions of people without access to quality medical care, and that will end up costing taxpayers more than they are already paying. 

The proof is the support for this plan being offered by the likes of Wal-Mart and the big medical industry players.

Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). He is the founding editor of ThisCantBeHappening.

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