opinion by Maylon Rice
Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
This past week, the 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates in the United States received a post card reminder that the open enrollment dates for their health plan insurance is approaching.
But the impact of the notice was much more than a post card could imply.
As far as a major publicly-held major company – it was time, perhaps past time – that the firm addressed this often unspoken issue of providing insurance and other benefits to domestic partners of its employees.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest employer, had sent out these mass mailings for many years, informing its associates of the upcoming open insurance enrollment dates, according to Randy Hargrove, the Wal-Mart spokesman. The post card is a simple two-sided piece of heavy stock paper, with lots of colors, some photos of real Wal-Mart associates identified in the presentation and few words.
It arrives so quietly in the everyday mail it gets little notice. Indeed, few such mailings in the past have caught the eye of the press like the one sent out this week. Especially since the company quietly announced it would provide benefits for spouses or domestic partner.
Offering benefit coverage to one’s “domestic partner.” were the two words that sent reporters and editors to immediately write stories which graced the cover of USA Today and other major media outlets and, like The City Wire, filled the cyber space listing on financial newsletters and magazines. Wal-Mart is the 62nd major Fortune 500 company to add domestic partners to its basic health care package
This was news. Big news from Bentonville, near the hub, if you will, of conservative Northwest Arkansas. If not THE hub.
“We have more than just the one piece of information on that card than the coverage for spouse or domestic partners,” Hargrove offered in answering the question about the company’s postcard mailing.
After receiving an e-mail image of the colorful card, Hargrove pointed out the fact that the nation’s largest retailer:
• Was adding a vision plan;
• Touted the lowest medical premium increase in years, ranging from 3% to 10% depending upon the plan chosen;
• New quitting tobacco information;
• Expanded Centers for Excellence, a program that offers 100% coverage for hip and knee joint replacement, in addition to certain heart and spine surgeries, for associates who enroll in a HRA plan or the HAS plan (Hargrove said this has been requested for years and is finally available); and
• “Castlight” – a hassle-free way to find good care while saving money.
But the biggest breakthrough was on the domestic partner front. On the post card Wal-Mart simply wrote:
“Beginning in 2014, if you’re a full time associate you can cover your spouse/domestic partner in the medical, dental, vision, life, critical illness or accident plans.”
The card directs those interested for details on who qualifies and some important tax consideration to go to a company website. The change in the Wal-Mart policy on coverage of domestic partners will take place in all 50 states, independent of each state’s definition of what a marriage, domestic partnership or civil union means. The company will ask that their employees be in a relationship at least one year, prior to enrolling that partner, according to the website.
Any full-time Wal-Mart employee in Arkansas may apply for the benefit for a domestic partner and qualify, despite the state’s Constitutional definition or lack thereof.
A business blog last week, release what it claimed to be a Wal-Mart internal memo from the retailing giant citing the policy change as “a business decision.” The blog quoted the document saying that “The Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obama Care”) inextricably linked health insurance with employment. As such, for our associates for whom we offer health insurance, we want to be sure we are providing access to as many individuals and their families as possible.”
Wal-Mart ranks among the top employers in Arkansas. Last week the company opened its 100th store in the state. The move may simply be a business decision by Wal-Mart, but it does carry a potential political impact in the company’s home state. In Arkansas a state Constitutional Amendment defines a marriage as an act “between a man and a woman.” Plus the state also does not recognize opposite- or same-sex domestic partnership.
Again, Hargrove emphasized that offering health insurance to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) partners, is just “one piece” of the store’s updated benefits package.
OK, but it’s a big piece, and in Arkansas it is bigger than a postcard.