A Tale of Two Stories

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Feb 24, 2006 10:08 AM

Every night, late in the evening, when the low-decibel hum of fluorescent lights combines with the murmur of a newsroom on deadline, there is a magical time. A magical moment in which a reporter can write just exactly what he thinks.

That moment, right before his editor gets ahold of his copy, when all is right with the world, and every sentence he's written is just perfect. That moment is usually hidden from our eyes. The reporters' feelings are daily wiped away by the furious strokes of an editor's pen, and the copy is presented to us, sanitized and objective.

Right. Well, that's the way it's supposed to work. As some of you may have noticed, a reporters' biases can creep into his final copy. Sometimes the editor doesn't wrangle all the feelings before a news story hits the wire looking like an opinion piece.

Such is the tale of a New York Times piece on Wal-Mart's health care coverage today. Sure, this one looks innocent enough. Titled, "Wal-Mart to Expand Health Care Plan," it takes no cheap shots in the headline, and continues to play it straight for three paragraphs:

Wal-Mart Stores, facing a raft of state bills that would require it to increase spending on employee health insurance, plans to ease several longstanding — and heavily criticized — restrictions on who is eligible for benefits, the company said yesterday.

Wal-Mart said that for the first time it would permit part-time employees to enroll their children in the health insurance plan, and it pledged to reduce significantly the waiting period before a new part-time employee is eligible for benefits, though it declined to specify the reduction.

The new eligibility rules are intended to increase the number of employees who can participate in the insurance plan, but it is unclear how significant the impact will be because Wal-Mart gave little detailed information about its plans.

Oh, but it's not so innocent if you happen to find that this story is a rewrite of one of those opinionated reportorial gems that can sneak onto the wire late at night. Check out the other one. I give you, "Wal-Mart to Loosen Health Insurance Limits." Yeah, that's more like it. Let that free spirit show, Michael Barbaro! And, the first three paragraphs:

Wal-Mart Stores, facing a raft of state legislation that would require it to increase spending on employee health insurance, will lift several of its long-standing — and most-criticized — restrictions on eligibility over the next year, the giant retailer said this morning.

The changes, which Wal-Mart's chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., will formally announce before a meeting of the nation's governors on Sunday, underscores how big a public relations threat the health care issue has become for the nation's largest private employer.

Wal-Mart insures less than half of its 1.3 million employees in the United States and has come under growing criticism for skimping on benefits and shifting the cost of health care to state governments. In the past two months, the Maryland Legislature passed a law that would force Wal-Mart to improve its benefits and legislatures in a dozen more states, including California, Washington and Rhode Island, are considering similar bills.

Note that health coverage for children of part-time employees is not worthy of an early mention and "skimping on benefits and shifting the cost of health care to state governments" is stated as fact, without statistics. The "skimping" sentence was changed to this, in the rewrite, and shifted to the 5th graf:

Wal-Mart insures fewer than half of its 1.3 million employees in the United States, and it has come under fierce criticism from those who say its benefits are skimpy and result in the cost of health care being shifted to state governments. (emphasis mine)

Other quibbles Michael Barbaro had with the new plan, in his original piece:

...it was unclear how significant the impact would be because Wal-Mart released little detailed information.

What is clear is that Wal-Mart would still require workers, whose average pay is less than $20,000 a year, to pay hefty annual deductibles and monthly premiums.

Oh, heavens! Monthly premiums and deductibles? You mean, it's not totally and utterly free? Scoundrels. Let's take a look at the deductibles and premiums, as cited in the rewrite:

Wal-Mart said it would make a new health care plan, with premiums as low as $11 a month for an individual, available to half of its employees by next year. Under the plan, which was introduced this year in several regions, the premiums are $9 more a month for children.

Wal-Mart said it had to go through tough negotiations with doctor networks to get such low premiums, making it impossible to roll out the program to all of its American workers in one year.

That low-cost benefit, known as the Value Plan, allows for three generic prescriptions and three doctor visits before a deductible kicks in — $1,000 for a individual employee and up to $3,000 for a family.

A high-deductible plan, available for only $11 a month, in which the burden of the high deductible is greatly alleviated by Wal-Mart negotiating for three prescriptions and three doctor visits before the deductible kicks in. Best of both worlds, right? A pretty nifty solution to many folks' health care woes, available to Wal-Mart specifically because it's big enough to negotiate favorably for their employees.

But the Times reporter was determined to portray these efforts in the most negative light possible. Telling, isn't it? Wal-Mart is evil because it doesn't offer enough health benefits (nevermind the hundreds of thousands of jobs, millions in tax revenue, and racks upon racks of Mary-Kate and Ashley merchandise it brings to all of us). It offers more health benefits, and it remains basically evil because it's not giving away the benefits for free.

And, then there's the unbearable stinginess of Wal-Mart's in-store clinics:

Wal-Mart also said it would expand the use of in-store clinics to treat employees and nonemployees. Such clinics, which the company set up in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Indiana as a test six months ago, are intended to provide routine, nonemergency care for conditions like strep throat or an earache.

So far, Wal-Mart has nine clinics. They are operated by third-party medical providers who rent space from the company, much like hair salons or banks do. By the end of the year, there will be 59 clinics, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Mona Williams, said. On average, she said, visits to the clinics cost about $45, with some clinics accepting insurance.

Seriously, if there is a cheaper, innovative solution to the health care dilemma, Wal-Mart is going to figure it out, just as the retailer figures out cheaper, innovative solutions to thousands of other problems. Wal-Mart will figure out a way to do it without relying on taxpayer money, and without having to lay off half its employees to afford it, and they're making strides. Pretty cool, huh?

You'd think this would be good news to folks who keep saying they want more health care for Wal-Mart's workers. Unfortunately, this Times writer let his Wal-Mart hatred (Wal-Mart Derangement Syndrome?) get in the way of reporting these innovations as anything but shortcomings.

Kudos to the Times for running a rewrite, but the original piece is telling. You never know what kind of truths you'll find hiding out on the wire. Read both stories.

I, for the record, am an unabashed lover of Wal-Mart. I've been to grand openings and eaten chili dogs at the in-store lunch counter, and loved every minute of it. But at least I admit to my biases.