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Checking In With Wal-Mart’s David Tovar

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest private employer, has endorsed a health care overhaul that includes a requirement that employers make some financial contribution toward the health care of their workers. Yesterday, the Arkansas-based company released a letter (.pdf) to President Barack Obama jointly signed by the heads of the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, that states: “We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage.” The letter does not provide details of how that requirement would work.

KFF Health News Correspondent Jordan Rau discussed the letter with Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar.

Q: Can you explain the timing of this announcement?

A: We just think that where the debate is right now, we think there is momentum building, it has for some time on the legislation, it was important for Wal-Mart, along with the Center for American Progress and SEIU – one of the largest unions and one of the largest think tanks – to come together and be able to provide some solutions to what should be considered in any type of health care reform proposal. We think the employer mandate is one of them, along with what we talked about in terms of stronger efficiency provisions as well as a trigger mechanism to ensure that the cost reductions are met. We think the time is now. The status quo is not an option. The present system is not sustainable.

Q: Will an employer mandate lead to the shedding of jobs?

A: No. We know there’s been some discussion of an exemption for small businesses and we think that’s appropriate, but we think for large businesses like Wal-Mart that there should be some kind of a mandate. We think our health care plans are affordable for our associates so we think it’s the right thing for our business.

Q: In the mandate you’re envisioning, what type of changes would it require of Wal-Mart?

A: That’s a lot of the discussion that needs to continue in the future and I think the devil’s in the details. We’re not at that point yet. As the legislative process continues, we hope to be part of the discussions and have a seat at the table in order to advocate for the things we’re in favor of. But generally speaking, as we said, we’re for a broad-based and fair employer mandate, but we’ll have to see what that looks like, obviously.

Q: Have Wal-Mart and SEIU paired up in the past or is this a new step in your relationship?

A: I think both. We came together with SEIU and the Center for American Progress and other businesses and other unions three years ago and formed Better Health Care Together. That was a group that was focused on health care reform and had a goal of having health care reform by 2012. We think this is continued dialogue and discussion with our groups, including SEIU, toward that goal of reform. Today was putting some more specifics that we could all agree to and come together on what we think is something that would be important to the legislation.

Q: Is this a major break for Wal-Mart from the Chamber of Commerce [which opposes an employer mandate]?

A: Like I said, we think this is the right thing for our business, which is why we came out in support of it.