State retail association executives told SN last week they oppose the concept of "fair share health care" legislation the AFL-CIO said it hopes to introduce in approximately 30 states.
As outlined by the AFL-CIO in a press conference last week, the legislation would require large corporations to allocate specified amounts of their payrolls to health care coverage for their employees or else pay a certain amount into state-funded programs like Medicaid to cover uninsured individuals, with the specific requirements determined by each state according to its needs.
Brandon Scholz, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, called the AFL-CIO's approach "a very dangerous plank to take a walk on because there's no telling what the ultimate impact would be. If they require a certain percentage now, who's to say that percentage would not go up in the future to cover some other societal need?"
Scholz said he is not aware of any proposed "fair share" legislation in Wisconsin, "though some of those ideas have been discussed by business and labor. But there are better approaches that can be developed, such as trying to get to the root of the problem rather than pursuing this disguised effort by labor to make business pay for one universal health plan.
"We believe employers have a responsibility to offer benefits that help them build and retain their workforce, and those who don't [accept that responsibility] take the risk of losing that workforce. But we don't support more government mandates that will drive up the costs of doing business."
Grace Nome, president of the Connecticut Food Association, said her association was part of a coalition that defeated proposed legislation in the state last year that would have set a formula for what employers would have to pay in health insurance. "We killed that bill because we have enough trouble trying to attract business in this state," she said.
"I'm very sympathetic to people without health insurance, but coming up with a suggestion like this is ridiculous. Health care has become an enormous expense that is really, really getting out of hand, and we've got to correct it, but this isn't the way."
Initial legislative proposals targeted companies with at least 5,000 employees, she said, "because they were aimed at Wal-Mart, but now they've come down to a minimum of 500 employees."
Brian Houghton, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, said his organization agrees with the concept of universal health care for members of the commonwealth, "but imposing another tax on the business community won't help people achieve that in the long run," he said. "We're the only state that has lost population in the last two years, so it's rough enough to run a business in Massachusetts, and to impose a tax on the business community to support health care coverage for everyone could bust the bubble in this fragile economy."
Massachusetts is awash in proposals covering health insurance, Houston said, with separate proposals in the House and Senate that would require businesses with fewer than 100 employees to contribute 3% to 5% of their payrolls over the next two years into a state fund to cover uninsured citizens and those with more than 100 employees to contribute 5% to 7% over the next two years. There are also proposals by separate groups seeking to put initiatives on the state's 2006 ballot requiring employers with at least 50 employees to put approximately 5% of their payrolls into a state fund for the uninsured. A proposal by Gov. Mitt Romney to have the private sector set up a brokerage system through which individuals could purchase health insurance, however, is the plan the Massachusetts Food Association believes is the best alternative, Houghton told SN.
Legislation similar to the House and Senate proposals in Massachusetts was passed in California and approved by the governor but rejected by voters in a close vote last November. The AFL-CIO said it is working to override a veto of a measure in Maryland - passed by the legislature and vetoed by the governor - that would penalize companies that pay less than 8% of their wage costs in health care benefits.
In a press conference last week, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said the union is seeking to introduce legislation at the state level because "we can't wait for the federal government to take action."