NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Discounter Wal-Mart, which is often disparaged for its employee benefits, is set to unveil a cheaper health insurance plan aimed at expanding coverage for its low-income workers, according to a published report Monday.
The New York Times reported that the new "Value Plan" will have monthly premiums as low as $11. Additionally, Wal-Mart (Research) is offering health savings accounts, which the federal government introduced last year, the paper said.
"We are lowering the costs to make health insurance more affordable," Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman was quoted in the paper as saying. However, Fogleman declined to say how much the plan would cost the world's largest retailer.
Under the plan, monthly premiums would run between 40 percent and 60 percent less than those for any existing Wal-Mart insurance policy, the report said, and individuals could visit a doctor three times before paying a deductible.
In the past, workers have had to pay a deductible before their insurance kicked in, the paper said.
Those who participate will pay a $1,000 deductible, the maximum under Wal-Mart's insurance for 2005. Monthly premiums will be, on average, less than $25 for an individual, $37 for a single parent and $65 for a family. The $11 premium, for individuals, will be available in a handful of areas, Fogleman told the Times.
However, the paper said the plan is unlikely to cover a complicated illness or expensive hospital stay during the first year, when there is a $25,000 insurance cap, with the cap lifted for the second year. Out-of-pocket payments range from $300 for prescriptions to $1,000 for hospital stays.
While the company has not yet formally announced the changes, workers have been given details to enroll in the plan starting in 2006, and Wal-Mart's CEO Lee Scott is expected to discuss it in an address to company employees Monday morning, the report said.
Currently, fewer than half of Wal-Mart's workers are covered by company health insurance, compared with more than 80 percent at Costco (Research), its leading competitor, the paper said. The company declined to estimate how many additional workers would be covered under the new plan.
Asked if the new insurance plan was in response to growing criticism, Fogleman told the paper that was listening to its critics "but more so to our associates than anyone else."
Wal-Mart's detractors have lambasted the retailer, claiming that its health insurance is out of reach for many of its 1.2 million workers in the United States, forcing thousands of them to turn to state-sponsored programs or forgo health coverage altogether, the paper said.
Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition of community groups that has been highly critical of the retailer, told the Times that she had not seen details of the plan, but said that "a plan that is characterized as a healthy person's plan doesn't fully address the needs of a majority of their work force."
Even as they commended Wal-Mart for offering a more affordable health insurance plan, some industry watchers expressed surprise that the company waited as long as it did to offer a more affordable option, the report said.
"We have a health care system in this country that assumes people will be covered by their employer," Charles Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, told the paper. "If the biggest employer in the country isn't providing some kind of affordable and meaningful coverage, that is a problem."