Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Business freeloaders on Idaho Medicaid

A key Idaho Republican lawmaker is asking an important question that should jolt most taxpayers: Why does Idaho provide large businesses a health care subsidy for employees and their families?

The question is aimed directly at the retail giant Wal-Mart, which might well be freeloading on the state's Medicaid health care system. Medicaid is a public health plan for the working poor.

Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, is proposing legislation to close this loophole. Businesses would have to buy health insurance for their workers or reimburse the state for Medicaid costs.

With Republican Newcomb's support, the proposal has a chance of passage. The idea originally was proposed several years ago by Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, but died in the Legislature under the wilting pressure of business lobbyists.

Two factors have re-ignited interest. A Georgia state study showed an inordinate number of Wal-Mart employees' children receive state health care there (one for every four employees vs. one for ever 22 employees in another chain store). And, Idaho is exploding Medicaid costs.

Idaho's costs have soared from 5 percent of the budget in 1990 to 14 percent today. The statistics are jarring. Of the 252,000 Idahoans without health insurance, four-fifths of those are working. In 2001, a survey found half of Idaho's 50,000 businesses didn't provide insurance.

Although any legislation to end health-care subsidies could not single out Wal-Mart, Rep. Newcomb surely spoke for a lot of Idahoans when he observed:

"Rather than taxpayers subsidizing the wealthiest family in the world, maybe the wealthiest family in the world ought to reimburse Medicaid." Wal-Mart is wholly owned by the Walton family.

Public health care is reaching more U.S. families. One program or another—Medicaid, Medicare, military and federal health programs—now serve an estimated 1 in 3 Americans, about 100 million people.

Eliminating fraud, waste and sloppy administration unquestionably would reduce costs. However, the programs are here to stay and are a tribute to the nation's willingness to provide preventive health care as well as to treat the sick.

Concern about citizens' health speaks volumes about a nation's character.

However, implicit in these programs is the obligation of everyone—individuals and businesses—to share in the burden of costs.

Allowing businesses to trim operating costs on the backs of other taxpayers and to increase their profits is an injustice that must be rectified by government, plus a disgrace that self-respecting corporate executives should want to avoid.

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