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Wal-Mart is a smoke screen

the real issue is health care crisis

January 22, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

Back in the early '80s, I'd occasionally attend a regularly scheduled, Saturday night party of Capitol Hill staffers who made it a sport to sit around the TV in someone's high-rise apartment building and laugh at the McLaughlin Group.

It was a lot of yuks and a lot of flip comments and it was the first time I recall hearing what has become a pretty standard joke: Watching the documentation of one federal-government failure after another, someone asked, "Why do we even need a federal government at all?"

Without missing a beat, someone answered, "Louisiana."

Like everything else in Washington, jokes need to be explained. This one implies that if you could count on states to do the right thing you would not need a federal government. But there will always be one or two states where they believe that education and jury trials should be optional, executions and air pollution should be mandatory and that only white, landowning males should be allowed to vote.

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To make sure all American citizens receive basically the same rights and opportunities regardless of what state they live in, you need a federal government. Or at least that's what we thought back in the '80s.

Today, that paradigm is in danger of being turned on its ear.

The model that best fits today's situation would portray states as the children of alcoholic (federal) parents. More and more, the daily responsibilities of life are falling into their laps as the parents fight, get sick and disappear for long periods of time.

What has the federal government accomplished of late? Republicans are largely responsible for a war, a drug plan and a school plan that aren't working out. Democrats are responsible for torpedoing much-needed tax and Social Security reforms. They argue among themselves over Supreme Court nominees and spend their days drawing up legislation, not to help the people, but to try to keep they themselves from being slightly less corrupt than they've been over the past decade.

Meanwhile, time moves on, and states are waking up to the fact that if they wish to progress and keep up with modern issues, they will have to go it alone. End-of-life issues, stem cell issues, worker issues, health care issues, education issues - states are dealing with these problems in increasing numbers because the federal government either won't or can't.

For people who view government solely as entertainment, it will be oh-so-much-fun to watch, as states' rights, judicial-restraint Republicans suddenly turn to the federal government and Supreme Court to crush state initiatives with which they disagree. It will be equally fun to watch Democrats suddenly receive the states' rights and judicial restraint religion that they've lambasted for the better part of a century. Everyone's going to have to rethink the Civil War.

Oregon went its own way on a "death with dignity" law. About two dozen states had to step up and pay for medicines needed by poor and disabled people who had their drug benefits (unintentionally) stripped under the federal drug plan.

This week Maryland got into the act, when the General Assembly overrode gubernatorial vetoes, and passed a law that will raise the minimum wage and will force Wal-Mart to up its health-benefit ante.

Minimum wage law hasn't been relevant one way or the other in 30 years, so I'm not going to worry about that one too much. But the health-insurance law in another animal, especially since a number of other states are watching Maryland and considering similar action.

A number of otherwise brainy folk seem to think that all our nation's problems would be solved if Wal-Mart would just go away. It's almost as if they believe Wal-Mart is creating a premeditated, company store-like situation where Wal-Mart employees are too poor to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart.

But the bottom line is this: Wal-Mart is operating under the laws of the market and the laws of the United States. Yes, it dances on the edge of labor law and provides its shoppers with discount prices at the expense of its employees' financial well being. If that makes you uncomfortable, simply shop elsewhere.

But what so many people fail to see is that in Maryland, Wal-Mart is being blamed for something that has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. What we're dealing with is not department store skullduggery, but a catastrophic failure on the part of the federal government to contain health care costs. Wal-Mart, at least, has to adhere to the rules of a free marketplace. In no respect does health care have to do the same.

I doubt anyone believes there's a C. Montgomery Burns high in the towers of Wal-Mart looking to crush its employees like bugs for the sport of it. In fact, if health insurance cost what health insurance should cost, I dare say Wal-Mart would be a lot more willing to pay it.

Maryland is telling Wal-Mart, "We are going to force you by law to pay an outrageously high price to participate in a system rife with incomprehensible paperwork, insurance company price gouging and cherry picking, ambulance-chasing trial lawyers, wildly inflated medical markups, endless waits to see a doctor, testing when you don't need it and no testing when you do and no choice of physicians. And don't for a minute expect the government to fix any of these problems."

Tell us again how Wal-Mart got to be the bad guy?

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