OLYMPIA — A handful of state legislators have received two new confidential reports revealing which companies have the highest numbers of employees on state-funded health-care programs.
The state is refusing to release the reports to the public or to the companies named in them, and has warned lawmakers that they could face stiff penalties if they disclose the findings.
Democratic lawmakers had hoped to use the new reports to help win public support for their plan to crack down on companies that have numerous employees on Medicaid and the Basic Health Plan (BHP), a state-subsidized health-insurance program for the working poor.
A similar report produced three years ago, which the state says was mistakenly released to the public, found that numerous companies had employees on the two programs. Wal-Mart had the most, with 341 employees on the BHP alone.
"I think it's important that people, as taxpayers, know the businesses that are being responsible and the businesses that aren't," said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, one of the lawmakers who has received the reports.
Cody and more than 30 other Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing legislation that would require companies with 5,000 or more employees to put at least 9 percent of their total payroll costs toward health-care benefits. Companies that don't put that amount toward health care would be required to pay the difference to the state.
It's unclear how many Washington companies don't meet the 9 percent threshold.
The bills — House Bill 2517 and Senate Bill 2356 — are scheduled to come up for hearings Thursday in both chambers.
Similar legislation was approved last week in Maryland and is expected to come up in numerous other states this spring. The measures are part of a nationwide campaign by labor unions and liberal activists to force big companies, such as Wal-Mart, to offer better health-care benefits.
Lawmakers also see the legislation as a way to ease the state's health-care burden. Health-care costs are expected to account for nearly 30 percent of all state spending this year.
The biggest share goes for Medicaid, a state-federal program that provides health coverage for children in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — about $37,000 for a family of four.
The Basic Health Plan, funded entirely by the state, covers low-income adults. Enrollment is capped at 100,000.
In 2003, lawmakers got a glimpse at which companies have the most employees on these programs in a report compiled by legislative staff members. Aside from Wal-Mart, other companies with more than 200 employees on either Medicaid or the BHP included Safeway, McDonald's, Jack In The Box, Del Monte and Snokist.
More than 15 other states have compiled lists showing which employers have the most workers receiving Medicaid or other government-funded health-care benefits, according to an advocacy group called Good Jobs First. In most places, Wal-Mart was at the top of the list.
Last fall, the company acknowledged in an internal memo that, nationally, nearly half of its employees' children either were on Medicaid or were uninsured.
"Right to know"
David West, executive director of the Seattle-based Center for a Changing Workforce, a nonprofit research group, has been leading the push to get Washington state to gather data showing which companies have the most employees on the BHP and Medicaid.
"We think it's a fundamental question of taxpayers' right to know," said West, an outspoken Wal-Mart critic. "The state doesn't call it this, but what this in effect is is a taxpayer subsidy of employers."
The Legislature last year passed a bill ordering the state to prepare a public report showing where all of the state's Medicaid and BHP recipients work. But Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire vetoed the measure, citing "significant privacy and public-disclosure concerns."
To produce the report, the state would need to use records from the Employment Security Department, which manages the state's unemployment-insurance program.
Trouble is, state and federal law bars the department from publicly disclosing any data on specific employers, according to state attorneys.
Despite those restrictions and her own veto, Gregoire last year instructed the agency to produce the secret report for lawmakers.
Last month, the Employment Security Department sent two documents to key lawmakers — one showing the top 20 employers of people on the Basic Health Plan and another showing the "employment status" of the state's Medicaid clients.
But the department also warned the legislators in a cover letter that the reports are confidential and that they could face up to $5,000 in fines if they disclose the data.
Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for Employment Security, said last week that federal law explicitly bars the agency from disclosing data or records naming specific employers.
Even Wal-Mart can't get its hands on the reports.
"It's very hard for us to comment on it if they're not going to share it with us," said Amy Hill, a regional spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.
But Hill pointed out that the company supported last year's bill calling for the report. She said the company believes it would show that while Wal-Mart may have the most employees on state-funded health care, other firms have a higher percentage of their employees enrolled in those programs.
Several lawmakers recently contacted Gregoire's office to raise concerns about the confidentiality restrictions.
In a response letter last week, Gregoire said she asked her agencies to produce the secret reports for lawmakers "because, short of being able to release it to the public, I felt it important that our policy makers in the Legislature have the information they need to make informed decisions on behalf of the public."
But Gregoire said she has asked the state Health Care Authority, which oversees the BHP, and the state's Medicaid agency to look for ways to produce the same reports without using confidential data from Employment Security.
That could prove costly since neither of the health-care agencies has employer data readily available in its computer system.
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