By  on February 9, 1994

"...individuals, not the government, should be free to make choices on the type of health care coverage they wish to obtain and the doctor they would like to see."
-- Charles Siegel, 50-Off Stores

WASHINGTON -- Two mass merchants are taking a leading role in the retail industry's battle against certain health care reform proposals.

Bernard F. Brennan, chief executive officer of Montgomery Ward & Co., and Charles Siegel, ceo of 50-Off Stores, told a House panel last week that employer mandates in health care reform would have disastrous consequences for the retail industry.

"No issue is of more significance to retailers," Brennan told the House Ways and Means Committee. "Whatever is done will have enormous impact on retail."

Brennan testified on behalf of the National Retail Federation. He took the reins as new chairman of the trade group at its annual convention in January. Siegel spoke for the International Mass Retail Association. He is a member of IMRA's board.

Retailers joined the opposition to employer mandates early in the debate, and their arguments gained momentum last week when major business groups, including the Business Roundtable, came out against President Clinton's proposal that employers pay 80 percent of health care premiums for all workers -- full-timers and part-timers.

House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) turned up the heat Friday on congressional Republicans, who are almost unanimous in their opposition to employer mandates. Gephardt blamed business opposition to Clinton's plan on Republicans who "twisted their arms...and twisted the facts in the process."

The debate is likely to get uglier. Brennan and Siegel faced criticism from members of the House Ways and Means Committee for their opposition.

"I know that most retail workers have a primary job that provides them with health care coverage," said Rep. Sam Gibbons (D., Fla.). "If Mr. Brennan says his folks are taken care of and he wants to keep it that way, I can't blame him for not wanting to pay mandates. But somebody has to pay for it. You'll either get mandates or taxes or we'll end up keeping the current system. But something will be done this year."

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