Wal-Mart to make health care coverage available to more part-time employees

WASHINGTON - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Monday it will relax eligibility requirements for part-time employees who want health insurance, allowing an additional 150,000 workers to gain coverage if they choose.

Until now, the employees have had to work for Wal-Mart for two years to qualify for employer-sponsored insurance. Beginning next month, they will have to work at the company for one year. The coverage also will extend to their children.

The changes were announced by one of the company's vice presidents, Susan Chambers, at a meeting of business and health care executives.

Wal-Mart has been strongly criticized by unions and others for providing what they describe as inadequate health benefits. However, Chambers said Wal-Mart's health insurance costs have risen at a rate of 19 percent annually over the past three years.

Cigarette makers, states fight over money owed under settlement

WASHINGTON - Tobacco companies put more than $700 million aside Monday rather than hand it over to the states in their battle over how much cigarette makers owe this year under a landmark 1998 settlement.

No. 2 cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. paid the states about $1.4 billion but withheld $647 million, putting it in a ''disputed payments account,'' Reynolds general counsel Charles Blixt said.

Blixt said the company was playing by the rules of the agreement. ''This is the mechanism by which we withhold money,'' he said.

Blixt said his company believes it does not have to pay the extra $647 million because of a provision in the deal that allows the cigarette makers to pay less if they have lost market share to smaller companies that weren't part of the settlement.

- From wire reports