By HOLLY RAMER The Associated Press
NEWMARKET - Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry pitched his health insurance plan to a small business Friday while blasting the nation's largest private employer for its "disgraceful" treatment of employees.
The Massachusetts senator was explaining his plan to workers at Russound when one asked how he could help part-time employees of large retail chains who are ineligible for benefits.
Linda Mariotti didn't mention a particular chain, but Kerry did, accusing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of luring workers in with the promise of health insurance then urging them to enroll in government health programs for the poor.
"They advertise Medicaid for their workers rather than provide them absolutely with the help. I think it's disgraceful, and I think we need a president who's prepared to help shed light," Kerry said. "I think Wal-Mart's health care practices are unconscionable, and the way they treat employees is not fair."
Wal-Mart and other companies that employ such practices should be punished by losing some of their tax deductions, Kerry said.
"They throw a lot of money around, they get a lot of things happening, but it ain't necessarily good for the community," he said. "We need to stand up and demand they behave corporately responsibly."
A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said Kerry "simply does not know what he is talking about.
"It's irresponsible," said Mona Williams, vice president for communications. "I don't know where Sen. Kerry's getting his facts, but someone better do their homework before he talks about Wal-Mart again."
Similar allegations were raised during the recall election in California. During one debate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante accused Wal-Mart of giving workers "official documents to go and apply for food stamps and public health care."
Williams said that isn't true. The company does provide workers who are applying for loans or social services with a number to call to have their income verified, she said.
Wal-Mart has about 1.1 million employees in the United States and about 300,000 overseas. More than 90 percent have health insurance, Williams said, 50 percent through the company and the rest through spouses and other sources.
Of those participating in the company's plan, 40 percent had no medical insurance when they were hired, she said.
Kerry's visit to Russound, which designs and installs home audiovisual systems, came on the first day of a five-day swing through New Hampshire focusing on health care.
Kerry's $80 billion plan would allow others to buy into the health care plan that covers Congress and would expand government programs for children and the poor. The centerpiece is a proposal to have the federal government pick up the cost of catastrophic care, which would lower premiums by $1,000 per policy.