The Wal-Mart Opportunity

Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) is at it again in the debate over health care. The discussion came to a head on Sunday, when, according to Monday's Wall Street Journal, CEO Lee Scott said in a speech to the National Governors Association that bills aimed at controlling what states spend on health care contained "too much politics."

Is he right? Maybe, maybe not. But it's worth noting that the Bentonville behemoth suddenly takes health care pretty seriously. Thank Maryland for that. That's where a recently overridden veto salvaged a bill requiring that large employers allocate at least 8% of their payroll to health care for those employees living and working in the state.

There's wide debate over whether the law makes any sense. I'm with fellow Fool Seth Jayson on that topic. I think the bill is a pandering, costly, shortsighted attempt by politicos to look good. And this is a liberal talking, folks.

Still, and as I said earlier, such recent actions appear to have pushed Wal-Mart to examine the potential need for some changes, at least on the surface. Among the list: reducing the waiting period for part-timers in need of health benefits and granting coverage to their children. Also planned is an expansion of the company's low-cost, high-deductible health plan to roughly half of its 1.36 million U.S. employees, according to the Journal.

I've no idea what any of this will cost Wal-Mart. But as an investor, I'm intrigued -- not by Wal-Mart's stock as much as those of the big health insurers. I see Wal-Mart's worried reaction to rising health costs, and I wonder whether the health care industry is aping the energy sector.

I also wonder when we'll see congressional leaders asking the CEOs of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH  ) , Aetna (NYSE: AET  ) , and WellPoint (NYSE: WLP  ) how they can justify $10 billion in profits in a quarter, a la ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) not long ago.

Think it isn't possible? Think again. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, $1.9 trillion annually is spent on health care in the United States. That number is expected to more than double, to $4 trillion, by 2015. In other words, health care is one of the great growth industries of the next decade. Wal-Mart may not want a piece of that action, but as an investor, I do.

Feeling woozy? Lie down; related Foolishness is on the way:

UnitedHealth is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorpick. Tom and David Gardner's stock recommendations are good medicine -- see for yourself with afree, 30-day trialto Stock Advisor.

Fool contributorTim Beyersneeds a checkup. Fortunately, his portfolio doesn't. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.


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