Critics Renew Push for State Report of Companies with Workers on Government Aid; Internal Effort Progresses

Gongwer News Service - November 16, 2005
   

Gongwer News Service

Looking to keep the pressure on companies with relatively high numbers of workers receiving public assistance, lawmakers, unions, researchers and other critics Wednesday renewed calls for the state to compile and release data identifying the firms.

Sen. Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown), the sponsor of legislation (SB 103) requiring annual reports on companies with workers receiving Medicaid and other government program benefits, credited the recent efforts of researchers at Policy Matters Ohio and others for jumpstarting an initiative by the Department of Job and Family Services to develop a report on its own.

“Their efforts finally got ODJFS and the Taft administration to see the light and undertake the task of determining how much the state is paying through its health care safety net programs because Fortune 500 companies continue to shift their responsibilities and burdens onto taxpayers,” Sen. Hagan said.

The ongoing push is part of a nationwide effort involving groups such as Wal-Mart Watch that are critical of companies that, because of their wages, benefits or other employment policies, have a relatively high percentage of their workforce receiving government assistance to supplement incomes. In similar reviews conducted in several states by the media or government agencies, Wal-Mart has been at or near the top in that distinction.

Initial requests for the information by Policy Matters and a handful of Ohio media outlets were rejected by ODJFS for logistical and legal reasons before Director Barbara Riley ordered a data compilation. Spokesman Jon Allen said Wednesday that an agency team assembled for the task continues to meet weekly and has developed a strategy to glean the information.

Due to difficulties in assembling the data – one of the reasons first cited by the agency in rejecting requests – Mr. Allen said ODJFS has not put a timetable on the project. However, he said recent progress includes a focus on the Client Registry Information System-Enhanced (CRIS-E) as the source of employee information for people receiving Medicaid benefits, food stamps or cash assistance.

Sen. Hagan’s bill would require annual reports on numbers of workers receiving Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Disability Medical Assistance benefits. It also would require hospitals to collect employer information from patients who receive treatment under the Hospital Care Assurance Program (HCAP).

Because CRIS-E data is entered by county caseworkers to determine or review eligibility status, the same company may be listed differently in the system. Mr. Allen said the agency has found Wal-Mart, for instance, listed in 162 different ways that include misspellings and other variations such as the name of the city of location before the store. ODJFS wanted to use the Wage Record Data because employers are listed under a single identification number, but federal law restricts the use of that information to unemployment compensation purposes, Mr. Allen said.

ODJFS hopes to eventually provide data for the most recent 12 months available, Mr. Allen said. The plan is to: sort the CRIS-E employer entries – more than 206,000 “unique listings” for employers were logged in 2004; examine the most frequent 100 or so listed and manually search the database to identify different listings for the same company; then compile a report.

“There’s no electronic shortcut,” Mr. Allen said. He noted that state officials in Massachusetts, one of a few states where such a review was mandated, ran into the same data problems.

Joining Sen. Hagan at Wednesday’s Statehouse news conference were Sen. Marc Dann (D-Liberty Township), representatives of the Service Employees International Union and other advocates.

Wendy Patton, policy liaison at Policy Matters Ohio, said Medicaid was intended to serve as a safety net for the state’s most needy citizens rather than a business subsidy program. Obtaining the employer information, she said, could help strengthen that net.

Indeed, Cathy Levine of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio, said the data could help policymakers make better decisions regarding Medicaid eligibility. “The solution isn’t to arbitrarily throw people off Medicaid,” she said.

Sen. Dann agreed. “The first thing we can do to reign in on Medicaid costs is to expose companies guilty of cost-shifting and then force them to pay their fair share,” he said.

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