NRF Goes Negative on Health Care Reform, Wal-Mart

Last Updated Jul 15, 2009 10:20 AM EDT

It's letter-writing season at the Nationals Retail Federation, but the correspondence might not be in the organization's best interest.

First, in an open letter on the NRF website attacking Wal-Mart's health care stance, organization CEO Tracy Mullins begins:

The word leadership tends be thrown around a lot in Washington. We see it used endlessly in political campaigns, newsrooms--even by trade associations. It seems everyone wants to lead. But not everyone has what it takes.
With health care reform looming in Congress, everyone is clamoring to claim their corner on the big debate, and the stakes have never been higher. The Obama administration seems to have taken to the notion that reform for reform's sake is better than nothing at all. What they must fail to realize is that a misstep on health care could quickly push our economic recovery back decades.
Not an auspicious start â€" the last scary "decades" flourish sounds a tad over the top â€" especially considering the letter denigrates people NRF might want to sway in the debate about health care reform. Then comes this bit:
When Wal-Mart sent a letter to President Obama two weeks ago supporting government mandates on businesses as a part of reform, the retail industry was astonished. Seeing the company in lockstep with the unions on this issue was troubling to say the least. Although the move may provide a short-term public relations boost to Wal-Mart, it could have long-lasting, devastating consequences to retailers throughout the country.
More hostility, and directed toward a company that NRF might align with to shape the debate from the inside while it pressed a more critical case from without.

The letter goes on to say that "our CEO Health Care Task Force continues to work diligently on real solutions that would help fix our health care system by laying out steps to encourage competition on cost and quality, rather than creating a $2 trillion bill for future generations to pick up."

Really? NRF also sent a letter to the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee providing its input on health care reform. Rather than offer "real solutions," though, the letter expressed NRF's stance on health care reform in decidedly negative terms. NRF stated:

  • It would not support an employer mandate of any type.
  • It does not favor a new publicly sponsored insurance plan or co-op to compete with private insurance.
  • It takes issue with limited five-year grandfathering of existing group health plans due to the potential to increase employer coverage costs at the end of the period.
  • It opposes enactment of any value-added tax or a direct charge on consumer spending to support new health care systems.
The letter had no positive suggestions to offer.

NRF certainly faces a dilemma and many of its members, even those too worried about customer reaction to take a stand on the issue, would like health care reform to go away or at least pass them by without attaching any cost. However, realism in this case seems to call for some resignation and flexibility. Even if federal health care reform doesn't pass, states, increasingly challenged to meet their medical costs, will step in with new versions of Maryland's Wal-Mart bill, maybe this time dubbed the Macy's bill or Target bill.

Yet, it isn't primarily public relations. Wal-Mart's recognizes that as health care reform emerges, whether on the federal or local level, it has an opportunity to press for a reasonable standard that accommodates its interests. Wal-Mart isn't the only retailer that is working on health care issues and, while many companies reject specific provisions of the measures now under debate, the industry might do well to seek common interests. The more retailers who can work together on those common interests, the more weight the industry will carry in deliberation and the more impact it will have on the outcome.