Wal-Mart ruling is a good omen

With San Francisco passing a law mandating employer funding of health care and San Mateo County beginning to put together its own medical access plans, a judicial ruling on the East Coast this week provided a jolt to the national debate over health care for the uninsured.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled Wednesday that Maryland legislation aimed at forcing giant discount retailer Wal-Mart to spend a certain percentage on health care violates federal law.

The Maryland attorney general vowed to appeal the decision. But the better route would be to drop the case on behalf of the Fair Share Health Care Law struck down by the federal court. It’s a bad law.

Union advocates of the so-called Wal-Mart law say it offered a legitimate means of shrinking Medicaid payments and adding the 15 percent of the population in the state without health benefits to insurance roles. But that’s like calling professional wrestling a legitimate sport. Both the Fair Share Health Care law and WWE matches are farce.

The Maryland law would have made companies with 10,000 or more employees spend 8 percent of their payrolls on employee health insurance or send the difference to the state government. Since Wal-Mart is the only company that matches that description, it’s hard to see how the law serves any purpose, except as the legislature’s self-righteous punishment for a corporate “villain.”

The proposal suggests Maryland legislators will intervene in business affairs whenever it suits their political fancy. That sets a terrible precedent — and one that residents of San Francisco know all too well from the Board of Supervisors. In the name of fairness, the state must not spend time and taxpayer money appealing the case. Instead, the General Assembly should focus on crafting structural reform that benefits everyone in the state.

Another legislative proposal in Maryland would create a health care exchange like the one passed earlier this year in Massachusetts. The state Senate bill would allow individuals to choose their coverage and take it with them when they switch jobs. Employers would contribute to the plan, but it would not depend on them.

Since most of the 46 million people in the nation without health insurance lose it temporarily when they move to another job, the Massachusetts approach could provide a real pathway to helping those in the state without insurance find and keep it.

From the Bay Area to the East Coast, legislatures are pushing forward with ideas for insuring the uninsured. It’s imperative that they put forth good proposals that are not thinly disguised attacks on business.

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