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Union Wins Big Employer Health Bill Victory

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Maryland lawmakers voted Thursday to overturn Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s veto of legislation requiring large employers to pay a minimum of 8% toward their employees’ health care costs.

The state Senate voted 30 to 17 in favor of the state’s “Fair Share” health care bill, providing 1 more vote than the 29 needed to overturn the veto. The House, which requires a three-fifths majority, voted 88 to 50 to overturn the veto.

Under the legislation, companies with more than 10,000 employees would be required to spend a minimum of 8% of their payroll on employee health care, either through the private market or by paying into a state fund to offset taxpayer expense. The legislation is known as the “Wal-Mart Bill” because the retailer is the only company that would be affected. The state’s 3 other major employers, Johns Hopkins, Giant foods and Northrop Grumman, all spend above the required percentage.

The override vote in Maryland is an early battle in a debate that is expected to take place in statehouses across the country: “fair share” health bill supporters say more than 30 states will consider similar bills this year.

“Working families in Maryland have been paying more than their fair share for quite some time,” Kim Nelson, director of Maryland for Healthcare, said after the Senate vote. “It’s about time that large corporations accept responsibility to pay their fair share and do the right thing,”

Maryland for Healthcare is the state’s campaign of Americans for Healthcare, a group established by the Service Employees International Union, Washington.

Opponents of the “fair share” concept argue that the approach will not help to do much to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

“The ‘fair share’ legislation is neither fair nor does it share the responsibility for solving these important issues,” says James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, Washington. “It’s easy to vilify a big company, but that kind of legislation doesn’t do anything to address the issues. The focus should be on positive, productive measures.”

Opponents of the bill, including Ehrlich, a Republican, also have argued that the law would conflict with the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Klein says the council will investigate if that is the case, but Nelson said Thursday that Americans for Healthcare has had the legislation reviewed by a professor at George Washington University and that the legislation will not conflict with the federal law.

“The real question is, are the advocates of this looking for legislation, or are they looking for an issue?” Klein said.

If supporters are serious about getting bills enacted, they will pay more attention to the states where the bill is most likely to get passed, Klein said.

If supporters’ work is more about gaining political attention, however, the supporters will focus more on states where they are likely to meet with strong opposition and generate more heated debate, Klein said.


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