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Wal-Mart offers health benefits to U.S. workers' domestic partners

The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013. REUTERS/R
The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013. REUTERS/R

By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc said on Tuesday it will offer health insurance benefits to domestic partners of its U.S. employees starting next year, following the lead of other major companies.

The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, also plans to begin to offer vision care to its eligible employees and their dependents, according to information the retailer sent to workers this week.

Wal-Mart is the single biggest U.S. employer outside of the federal government. More than half of its 1.3 million U.S. employees are on its health-care plans. The company said it does not know how many workers would use the new benefits, which also include free hip and knee joint replacements.

Wal-Mart's extension of health insurance to domestic partners comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in June forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal. The Supreme Court also paved the way for same-sex marriage in California.

"Since we operate in all 50 states, we thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the U.S.," spokesman David Tovar said.

Wal-Mart is behind many other large companies on domestic partner coverage. Sixty-two percent of the Fortune 500 already offer health benefits for domestic partners, according to the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equality Index.

Employees' domestic partners can be covered if they are legal spouses, not legally separated; or a domestic partner of same or opposite gender in an ongoing, exclusive relationship similar to marriage for at least 12 months with the intention to continue sharing a household indefinitely, Tovar said.

DOMESTIC PARTNERS

Wal-Mart confirmed some details of its 2014 annual enrollment to Reuters ahead of the sign-up period, which runs from October 12 to November 1. The company outlined changes to its plans on a postcard mailed to employees this week.

The 2010 U.S. Affordable Care Act will require large employers to offer coverage to certain part-time workers beginning in January but Wal-Mart said it had anticipated the change and did not need to further adjust its plans.

The law's goals include broadening insurance coverage and it requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer health insurance for employees who work 30 hours a week or more.

About 1.1 million people, including workers' family members, are currently covered by Wal-Mart health-care plans in the United States. Not all of the company's U.S. employees sign up for coverage. Part-time employees must work for Wal-Mart for one year and work an average of 30 hours a week to qualify.

Last week, United Parcel Service Inc told non-union employees that their spouses would no longer qualify for company-sponsored health insurance if they could get coverage through their own jobs.

Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz said on Monday that his company, which provides healthcare to employees who 20 hours a week or more, would not cut health benefits or reduce hours for employees in anticipation of the U.S. Affordable Care Act.

MAIN PLAN TO COST WORKERS 5.7 PERCENT MORE

Wal-Mart's U.S. employees are set to pay 3 percent to 10 percent more for their medical coverage next year, depending on the plan chosen.

The lowest-priced and most popular plan for a Wal-Mart employee is set to cost $18.40 per bi-weekly pay period next year, up 5.7 percent from $17.40 this year, the company said.

Full plan details were not available. The company plans to send tailored guides to its U.S. employees the week of October 8.

Annual U.S. health insurance premiums rose an average of 5 percent for individuals and 4 percent for families in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2013 Employer Health Benefits Survey released on August 20.

This year, Wal-Mart began to offer U.S. employees and their dependents free heart and spine surgeries at six major health centers. Next year, it plans to also fully cover hip and knee joint replacements at certain hospitals.

A large majority of Wal-Mart's workers who sign up for medical coverage also sign up for dental coverage. Wal-Mart said it would start to offer vision coverage in 2014 after employees asked for it.

"There's no one size fits all solution for people's benefits, so we're trying to offer a number of benefit options and then let associates make choices on what's best for them," said Tovar.

Dental and vision coverage are offered for additional fees, which for an individual are about $7 and $2 per bi-weekly pay period, respectively.

Wal-Mart's benefits administrators are Aetna Inc, UnitedHealth Group Inc's UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield, depending on the location of a particular worker.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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