Side of fast-food fries, hold the healthcare

Well, no one ever convincingly argued that a diet of fast food is good for your health.

And now it could be unhealthy for some of the people who work there – without them having to eat so much as a bite of their products.

In anticipation of the healthcare overhaul that takes full effect next year, a couple of Taco Bell and Wendy’s franchises in Oklahoma and Nebraska are evidently cutting back the hours of employees to dodge requirements of the healthcare reform law.

It was admittedly not the best thought-out part of the healthcare overhaul, requiring companies with 50 or more employees working 30 or more hours a week to offer healthcare coverage. It all but screams out, “Please, cut me to 29.5 hours!”

California's insurance commissioner just dinged Anthem Blue Cross for inflating its own cost estimates and improperly tacking on healthcare law fees, and sticking its small-business clients with an 11% hike. It comes at a moment that looks pretty much like a money grab ahead of both the healthcare law's full effect -- or ahead of a 2014 ballot measure that would give California the power that 37 other states already have, to regulate insurance premiums, not just criticize them publicly, which is about all that Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones can do.

[Walmart has already planted the flag here. Walmart executives, according to the Huffington Post, will start denying employee health insurance to new hires as of this month, on top of being able to drop health coverage for workers who work fewer than 30 hours a week, a number determined more often by employer than employee. Already, studies have found that Walmart employees have to rely on taxpayers for more public services to get by than do employees of other big-box stores -- and that Walmart has even helped employees seek out those benefits. A Walmart executive memo pointed out that Walmart employees then spent nearly twice as much on healthcare as the national average, and 46% of the children of Walmart employees were either on Medicaid or were uninsured. A UC Berkeley analysis nine years ago found California Walmart employees depend on the taxpayers, not the company that employs them, for healthcare and services such as subsidized school meals at a rate nearly 40% higher than employees of other big retail companies. The taxpayers’ tab then was $86 million. Another case of keeping profits private but putting costs on the public. Read The Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Walmart. ]

Under the healthcare law, companies can opt out of the healthcare provisos if they pay a $2,000 fine per full-time employee, and if you dump your full-time employees, voila, QED and all of that.

In any case, $2,000 is a comparative pittance, like those feeble “cost of doing business” fines that are supposed to discourage law-breaking on Wall Street and just wind up being hidden away in an expense account somewhere. The healthcare fine should have been bigger, or coverage extended to all employees, or both.

This is even cheesier than Taco Bell’s nachos.

Wendy’s fast-food chain, based in Dublin, Ohio, was founded by Dave Thomas. Because he was adopted, Thomas threw himself and some of his fortune into adoption causes. He set up a corporate adoption program to help employees afford to adopt. How would he regard a franchise policy that, like his own, makes it easier to adopt – but makes it impossible for those children to get healthcare through their parents’ employer?

Gidget the Taco Bell ad Chihuahua evidently got better care than some of Taco Bell’s part-time workers apparently will. Before Gidget suffered a massive stroke at the great age of 15, she ate well, was well tended, and “lived like a queen, very pampered,” said her owner, Karin McElhatton.

About half of all fast-food employees already work part-time, and many of them not by choice. Corporations can conveniently use the franchise system to be able to say, hey, it’s not our call – it’s up to the individual franchise. Yet fast food companies insist on rigorous and consistent standards in every franchise to make sure the food tastes the same wherever it’s served, and customers know they can find the same food the world over. If they can mandate the size of French fries, why can’t they mandate healthcare requirements for their franchisees too?

When a Florida Denny’s franchise recently tried to pull a fast one and add a 5% “Obamacare surcharge” to restaurant tabs, Denny’s chief executive scolded the franchise owner publicly.

These fast-foods stories are against the backdrop of mostly Republican governors declaring their states won’t take part in the healthcare overhaul. Pennsylvania’s governor made his state the 22nd, joining most of the states of the Old South and the Southwest. [Many of them are states that are “red” in another sense of the word: they send less tax money to Washington than they get back in benefits, unlike California, New York and other major politically “blue” states.]

The paradox is that this gives more power to the federal government, which will now be able to step into the breach in those states whose governors have opted out, and run healthcare programs itself.

In short, to you residents of those 22 states, take two aspirin and call the feds in 2014.

And to you patrons of these fast food places in these no-to-health-insurance places, don’t be surprised to see some group mounting a campaign asking, “Do you really want to eat at a restaurant whose idea of health care for the employees who fix your food is no more than a sign in the bathroom telling them to wash their hands?”

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