Wal-Mart extends benefits to same-sex domestic partners

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Following the lead of other large companies, Wal-Mart said Tuesday that it will offer health insurance benefits to U.S. employees' domestic partners starting next year.

The world's largest retailer also plans to begin to offer vision care to its eligible employees and their dependents, according to information Wal-Mart sent to workers this week.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based company is the No. 2 employer in the U.S., after the federal government. More than half of the 1.3 million workers in this country are on its health-care plans. Wal-Mart said it does not know how many workers would use the new benefits, which also include free hip and knee joint replacements.

In June, the Supreme Court forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and paved the way for same-sex marriage in California.

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"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 health coverage for domestic partners. Sixty-two percent of the Fortune 500 already offer such benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equality Index.

Domestic partners can be covered if they are legal spouses not legally separated; or a domestic partner of the same or opposite six in an 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 Oct. 12 to Nov. 1. The company outlined plan changes on a postcard mailed to workers this week.

The 2010 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 make further adjustments.

(Read more: Why more companies are hiring part-time workers)

The goals include broadening coverage, and the law requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer insurance to those working 30 hours a week or more.

About 1.1 million people, including workers' family members, are covered by Wal-Mart health-care plans in the United States. Not all of its 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 told nonunion employees that their spouses would no longer qualify for company-sponsored insurance if they could get coverage through their own jobs.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said Monday that his company, which provides health care to employees who 20 hours a week or more, would not cut health benefits or reduce hours for employees in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act.

Main plan to cost workers 5.7 percent more

Wal-Mart's U.S. employees will pay 3 percent to 10 percent more for their medical coverage next year, depending on the plan chosen. The lowest-priced, most popular plan is set to cost $18.40 per bi-weekly pay period, up 5.7 percent from $17.40 this year, the company said.

Full plan details were not available. The company said it will send tailored guides to U.S. employees the week of Oct. 8.

Annual 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 Aug. 20.

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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 workers who sign up for medical coverage also sign up for dental coverage. The company 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, UnitedHealth Group's UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield, depending on worker location.

—By Reuters