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BENTONVILLE, Ark.-Wal-Mart Stores Inc., one of the nation's largest employers, is planning to introduce a 401(k) plan this year that would become the biggest such program in existence.

As it rolls out, the plan is expected to have the most participants of any 401(k) plan. Wal-Mart has about 675,000 U.S. workers.

The retailer has signed a letter of intent to contract with Princeton, N.J.-based Merrill Lynch & Co. for a variety of 401(k)-related services, including asset management and plan administration services.

Wal-Mart has not previously offered a 401(k) plan, though it does offer a profit-sharing plan. About 85% of the profit-sharing plan's funds are invested in company stock, according to the Standard & Poor's Corp.

Wal-Mart also offers a stock-purchase plan in which the company contributes 15 cents for every employee dollar invested in company stock, a Wal-Mart spokes-woman said.

Retirement savings programs now are available to all associates, from store clerks to top management, who work at least 1,000 hours per year. The company will retain the profit-sharing and stock-purchase plans when it offers its 401(k) plan.

Few details are available on Wal-Mart's planned 401(k) program, including a start date. The plan probably will begin in mid-summer, said Rene M. Campis, first vp and director of Merrill Lynch Group Employee Services in Princeton.

It is not yet clear what the plan's specific investment options will be, though Mr. Campis said both Merrill Lynch and other funds would be available to employees.

In addition to acting as plan trustee, Merrill Lynch will provide administration and record keeping, customer education and employee communication services, a Merrill Lynch spokeswoman said.

Wal-Mart decided to introduce a 401(k) plan after associates expressed an interest in it in "feedback meetings" designed to weigh grass-roots sentiment among workers, the Wal-Mart spokes-woman said.

The new plan also will be available to Americans working in Wal-Mart stores in Argentina, Canada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Mexico, Mr. Campis said.

Health plan information

SAN FRANCISCO-Anyone who has ever tried to select a microwave oven or blender by consulting ratings in Consumer Reports magazine knows massive helpings of technical data can be digested more easily through simple charts and rating symbols.

Reasoning that health care is a consumer product like any other, the San Francisco-based Pacific Business Group on Health similarly is offering employees of its member companies charts of information on managed care networks.

While this service is not new for the PBGH, the medium is: A wide assortment of updated information now is being posted over the World Wide Web.

The coalition last November opened its Internet Web site, named "California Consumer Health Scope," to the public.

The PBGH Web site, located at, aims to provide information on choosing a health plan based on preventive care report cards; customer satisfaction ratings; quit rates, which are the proportion of patients who have left an HMO; accreditation status; and other measures.

Since its inception, the Web service has been accessed about 6,500 times, with the majority of those "hits" occurring during plan sponsors' open enrollment period last fall.

About 250 users continue to visit the site weekly, said Anne Castles, a PBGH project manager.

The meat of the Web site consists of several report cards gleaned from consumer surveys. The chart detailing "Satisfaction with Physician Care," for instance, scores 18 health plans on seven satisfaction criteria: the doctor seen most frequently; specialists; coordination among all doctors providing treatment; skill in finding and treating problems; attention to what a patient has to say; explanation of medical procedures and tests; and length of time the doctor spent with the patient.

The site also offers charts that rate California HMOs on specific quality measurement criteria, including the availability of childhood immunizations, breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening, prenatal care, cholesterol screening and diabetic retinal exams.

Other consumer information includes background on how to choose a health plan, what managed care is, HMOs vs. fee-for-service plans, and choosing a hospital.

The PBGH, which consists of 33 private and public purchasers representing 2.5 million lives, also is planning to add new data to the Web site on coronary artery bypass graft surgery outcomes for the entire state. It is working to build the database with the state's Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Also, by next spring the PBGH plans to expand its online data to include medical group accreditation data.

The "health scope" does not, however, display cost differences among the various managed health plans in the state. "Pricing varies so much depending on your geographic location and who your employer is," Ms. Castles said.

The coalition understands employees in some member companies will be far more likely to use the online quality information than others.

Employees in banks are unlikely to have easy access to the Internet at work, for example, while those in high-tech companies, such as Calabasas, Calif.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Los Angeles-based Hughes Electronics Corp., have used the Web site extensively, Ms. Castles said.

To aid employees who don't use the Internet, the PBGH is offering printed pamphlets to employers containing the same managed care ratings and accreditation data, and a toll-free telephone number to get the same information.