May 8, 2007 / 8:37 PM / 13 years ago

General Mills, Qwest join U.S. health care coalition

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Six corporations, including General Mills Inc. and Qwest Communications, on Tuesday joined a coalition of labor groups and businesses, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that are pushing for U.S. health care reform.

The coalition, which was launched in February and includes the Service Employees International Union, a vocal Wal-Mart critic, has not outlined specific proposals for meeting its goal of “quality, affordable” health insurance coverage for all Americans by 2012.

At a meeting on Tuesday, specific plans were not given. Instead, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the coalition, called “Better Health Care Together,” explaining ways their states are working to fix health care issues.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has outlined a $12 billion plan to insure 6.5 million people in his state. It would be funded with a $5.4 billion increase in federal funds and new taxes on doctors, hospitals and employers of 10 or more that do not provide health benefits.

Schwarzenegger said fixing health care is a “shared responsibility” that no single entity can fix. Instead, it requires the cooperation of the government, businesses, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals, he said.

The governor declined a hypothetical question of what it would mean if his effort fails. “We are going to get it done,” he said.

An estimated 46 million Americans lack health insurance, and, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, health-care spending comprises about 16 percent of the U.S. economy.

As the government has struggling to fix the system, employers, which are the main provider of health insurance in the United States, are looking for ways to bring down their own health care costs.

“We agree that America’s health care system needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed by 2012,” Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told the meeting.

Wal-Mart, with 1.3 million U.S. employees, has endured criticism over the years from labor unions that say it pays inadequate wages and pushes employees onto government aid programs. A group of roughly 200 protesters gathered outside the hotel on Tuesday where the coalition was meeting, chanting “Wake up Wal-Mart. Health care now.”

Cynthia Murray, who has worked at Wal-Mart for seven years and makes $9.87 an hour, said she could not afford the retailer’s health care coverage.

“Give us affordable health care today,” she said. “What good does 2012 do?”

Wal-Mart’s Scott said the retailer for its part has extended its program of selling certain generic drugs for $4 per monthly prescription at all of its pharmacies, and is expanding its in-store health clinics.

Other corporations joining the coalition were Embarq Corp., Maersk Line, Manpower Inc., and RR Donnelley.

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