WASHINGTON -- In the pending battle over health care reform, Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp. will be organized labor's retail symbols of why employers should be required to help pay for universal health care.

The United Food & Commercial Workers Union is leading the charge against retailers. UFCW will use the health plans of Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., and Kmart, Troy, Mich., to dispel arguments that President Clinton's blueprint for employer-mandated health care reform would be ruinous.

"The employer mandate in health care reform is essential," said Gregory A. Denier, director of the union's public information and research department. "Everyone has to do the same thing, so no one can seek a competitive advantage through health care costs."

Denier said the union is singling out non-union retailers partly because they are high-profile, particularly Wal-Mart, which is the nation's largest retailer and second largest private employer. The retail industry, too, has the largest number of uninsured employees, he said.

Kmart officials, while advocating the need for health care reform, reject union claims about its health plan, which covers about 32 percent of its 350,000 employees. About 150,000 Kmart workers qualify for the coverage, which becomes available after 90 days of employment and applies to those who work at least 30 hours a week. Roughly 125,000 of these employees opt to be covered, with the company picking up 70 percent of the cost.

"How do we get employees to work for us?" asked Don Morford, Kmart's director of benefits. "I think employers all over have done a fine job providing benefits for their work force."

Kmart officials estimate that under the Clinton plan, its health care costs would increase to $700 million from its current $250 million, as benefit costs increase and part-time workers are covered. They contend this would result in the elimination of many part-timers. They also view their plan as being competitive with the President's plan.

Wal-Mart officials did not return calls for comment.

According to the UFCW, Internal Revenue Service records show that roughly 43 percent of Wal-Mart's 490,000 workers are insured. Eligibility in the plan begins after 90 days and for those working 20 hours a week or more. Workers pick up 36 percent of premium costs.In mounting their health care case, the union will argue that businesses like Wal-Mart and Kmart save money on health care by making insurance eligibility for part-time workers difficult, or by providing inadequate employee health care benefits.

When the benefits are too costly or inadequate, employees are more likely to opt for coverage through a spouse or other family member, or through emergency care costs that are ultimately shouldered throughout the health care system. The union has calculated that last year Wal-Mart shifted $480 million in health care costs to other employers, and Kmart shifted $531 million.

This concept of cost-shifting, which some retailers claim isn't valid, is a basic underpinning of the administration's plan and one of its arguments why employer health care contributions should be mandated.

Under the White House plan, employees would be required to pay no more than 20 percent of health care costs with employers making up the balance.

"The money to pay for health care is coming out of the bank now. It's just a matter of whose account it's coming out of. Now everyone is scrambling to make sure it doesn't come out of their account," Denier of UFCW said, concerning who will pay for reform.

Kmart's Morford argues that while the concept of cost-shifting does occur in the health care system -- such as when doctors charge more to compensate for cost caps on Medicaid patients -- the argument of cost-shifting between employers isn't valid in the health care debate.

"Somebody is really dreaming if they think we are shifting $531 million," he said. He said Kmart's part-time workers, or more than 50 percent of its work force, are largely working for the discounter as second-income earners and don't want health care, although he said, "I would not argue that some of those people would not prefer full-time employment."

On the other hand, some of Kmart's covered, full-time workers may also carry spouses on their plans.

"If we have an employee whose spouse is working for a small employer with no insurance, I guess we could claim we are being shifted against," he added.

Denier argued, "Whether they are part-timers by choice is debatable. The fact is, if Kmart does not cover a worker, someone else is picking up the health care costs. It simply allows them to fatten their profits at someone else's expense."

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