A Kansas legislator on Tuesday accused Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of dumping its workers' health care costs on the state.
"I don't think it's fair that some of our large employers offer decent health insurance to their employees and some don't - and the ones that don't end up on the state program," said state Rep. Geraldine Flaharty, D-Wichita.
"It's unfair to the other businesses," she said, "and it's unfair to the taxpayers."
Flaharty has introduced a bill - House Bill 2579 - aimed at making Wal-Mart spend more on its employees' health insurance.
The bill is similar to one adopted in Maryland earlier this month when the state's Democrat-led Legislature reversed Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto.
The bill requires companies with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits.
If they don't, they would have to pay the state's Department of Labor an amount equal to the difference between their health insurance costs and the 8 percent figure.
In Maryland, more than one-fourth of the children of Wal-Mart employees are insured through the state-run program for low-income families.
A precise number for Kansas was not available Tuesday, but Robert Day, director of the Division of Health Policy and Finance, said Wal-Mart employees have the most children enrolled in the state's HealthWave program.
"They're three-fold more than the second largest employer group, which is McDonald's," Day said.
Currently, more than 37,000 Kansas children are on HealthWave.
Flaharty's bill may be short-lived. Originally scheduled for a hearing Friday morning before the House Commerce and Labor Committee, the bill was pulled Tuesday by House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.
It's now before the House Insurance Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Clark Shultz, R-Lindsborg. It's vice chairman is Rep. Eric Carter, R-Overland Park, who recently announced his intent to challenge Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger in this year's GOP primary.
Carter has said Praeger is not friendly enough to business.
"Forget it, it's not going to happen," predicted Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, vice chairwoman of the commerce and labor committee. "Eric Carter's not going to let that play out for all to see and then turn around and run for insurance commissioner."
Repeated attempts to reach Carter, Mays and Shultz for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
"I know what's going on," Flaharty said. "I've been deep sixed. It's dead."
The state's largest business lobby, The Kansas Chamber, opposes the bill.
"It's another mandate on business," Jim Gregory, a Chamber spokesman said. "It doesn't fix anything having to do with health care costs and it certainly doesn't contribute to making Kansas a good place for businesses to grow."
Praeger, too, opposes the bill.
"At this time, the commissioner wouldn't be inclined to support such a measure and does have concerns with putting mandates on companies that they can't afford," Praeger's public information officer, Charlene Bailey, wrote in an e-mail to the Journal-World.
Praeger, Bailey said, hopes the recent negative publicity that accompanied the Maryland bill will "encourage" Wal-Mart to "change their policies and provide better coverage in the future."
But Kelly Hobbs, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, argued that much of the bad publicity has been undeserved.
"We offer health insurance to all our employees - full-time and part-time - for as little as $11 a month in some areas, $23 a month in others," Hobbs said.
When asked how much employees pay in deductibles, Hobbs replied: "It varies - in our Value Plan, you don't pay anything for your first three visits. But we offer a lot of different plans for our employees."
At least 30 states, including Kansas, are thought to be considering bills similar to the one passed in Maryland.
"The bills we're seeing are the result of a multi-million dollar campaign being run by Washington, D.C., (labor) union leaders who are intent on attacking major employers," Hobbs said.
Flaharty said she introduced her bill at the request of the Sedgwick County Federation of Democratic Women, which does have ties to labor unions in Wichita.
"I've heard from my constituents as well," she said.
Ruff bristled at Hobb's assertion that the legislation is union-driven.
"Maryland stood up to Wal-Mart," she said. "The question now is when do the rest of us stand up to this behemoth?"
Day said he wasn't sure what to make of Flaharty's bill.
"What I find amazing is that we continue to add children to HealthWave at a time when the economy is growing," Day said, a key adviser to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on health care issues.
"So what does this mean? It means more and more working families can't afford health insurance for their children," he said. "And whether we like it or not, it means Medicaid and HealthWave are becoming health insurance programs for people who are working."