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Wal-Mart Supports Health Care Employer Mandate

1291980Wal-Mart joined with a large union and a liberal think tank on Tuesday to endorse the idea of an employer mandate in health care reform, setting the major retailer apart from most other businesses.

"We are for shared responsibility," Wal-Mart Chief Executive Mike Duke said in a letter sent to President Obama on Tuesday. "Not every business can make the same contribution, but everyone must make some contribution."

The letter was also signed by Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and John Podesta, chief executive of the liberal group the Center for American Progress, who served as the head of Mr. Obama's presidential transition team.

An employer mandate - also referred to as "pay or play" - would require employers to either provide "meaningful" coverage for their workers or contribute to a public fund to cover the uninsured. There is debate over whether a mandate would help reduce the costs the government will take on to ensure universal access to health care or simply more deeply entrench the United States in an employer-based health care system.

"The idea is everybody pays in a little bit more to make it work better for everybody else," Peter Harbage, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told CBSNews.com.

Many in the business community, however, contend the proposal would make it harder for employers to maintain a payroll with decent wages as well as the required benefits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes the employer mandate.

Wal-Mart was long notorious for its clashes with organized labor, although the store joined with the SEIU two years ago to call for universal, affordable health care in the United States by 2012. After recent improvements to its health care benefits, about 52 percent of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million U.S. employees now receive company-provided insurance, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In the letter, the company says its support for the mandate hinges on "the strongest possible commitment to rein in health care costs." The letter points to the cost-control mechanism put forward by the Bipartisan Policy Center, which would implement pre-specified targets for spending growth and enact a "trigger" to automatically enforce reductions.

"We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage, but any alternative to an employer mandate should not create barriers to hiring entry level employees," the letter also says.

Some proposals in Congress would require employers to pay for Medicaid for new workers.