DALLAS ( TheStreet) -- AT&T ( T) topped the health care-stricken leaderboard Friday by claiming a $1 billion noncash charge related to the federal health care legislation passed this week. In a federal filing Friday, AT&T said it plans to book the charge in the first quarter, before the period ends next week. The move comes just days after a sweeping and embattled health care reform bill passed in the House of Representatives with a 219-212 vote.
AT&T's quick reaction and eye-popping estimate raised the question of whether the filing was intended to register some protest. AT&T warned that the heavier burden may force its hand in regard to benefits. "As a result of this legislation, including the additional tax burden, AT&T will be evaluating prospective changes to the active and retiree health care benefits offered by the company," AT&T said in the filing. Ma Bell joins Caterpillar ( CAT) and Deere ( DE) as the first large employers to put a dollar estimate on the costs of the new health care plan. AT&T's estimates, however, far exceed its industrial counterparts. Cat put the charge at $100 million and Deere expects the tax hit to increase by $150 million. "I don't think it's a political move," says Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett. "These are big numbers, and they are not unique to AT&T and Verizon. It will be true with many large U.S. employers." AT&T declined to comment, as did Verizon ( VZ) and Sprint ( S). AT&T's health care benefits extend to 1.2 million people, according to press reports. The company has 281,000 active employees. If you include dependents under the play, the number comes out to 747,000 -- plus the 485,000 retirees and their dependents. The $1 billion charge comes out to $833.33 for each person covered under AT&T's health care benefits. It's important to note that the bookkeeping move by AT&T is a noncash adjustment -- the actual costs still remain to be seen. "There's no fundamental change to the value of the business," says Moffett. "But it does point out that the health care plan does have real economic implications for large companies." --Written by Scott Moritz in New York