Ryan open to making Medicare plan optional

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday that he is open to reforming Medicare in a way that would still leave traditional fee-for-service Medicare as an option for future seniors.

Such an option-based reform could eventually emerge as a compromise way to prevent Medicare’s projected bankruptcy in 13 years.

Ryan, speaking at a policy discussion hosted by The Hill and sponsored by No American Debt, an advocacy group, said that he has all along been open to an option version of his controversial Medicare plan, which Democrats have seized upon as a campaign issue. 

“I have always said all along all of those ideas are ideas we should be considering when it comes to legislation,” he said. “When you are down in the details, should there be a fee-for-service option alongside premium support ... they are all good ideas.

“We didn’t decide not to keep [traditional Medicare] as an option,” he said of his budget plan. “When you write a budget resolution, it’s the macro structure of an idea, not the specifics.”

Ryan’s House-passed budget sets out a plan whereby Medicare would be replaced by private insurance plans for people currently younger than 55 years old. The premiums would be partially subsidized by the government.

Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has backed the idea of making the Ryan plan an option, an idea also supported by former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin. 

In response to Ryan's comments at The Hill's even, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), ripped Republicans.

“Republicans are not fooling anyone. They voted to end Medicare and now they can’t take the heat," Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. "The only plan Americans want is called Medicare and we must strengthen it, not weaken it. What you’re hearing now is a lead balloon crashing to the ground.”

Democrats have criticized the Ryan proposal as ending the Medicare system entirely and credit their attacks on the plan to their victory in a New York House race last month. The New York seat had been held by a Republican.

Ryan was asked if he has been shocked by the ferocity with which Democrats have attacked his plan.

“I expected that when we put our plan on the table, we would probably get something else [from Democrats] and then we would start talking,” he said. “I expected the demagoguery, but I expected some responsible leaders in the other party to do something.”

Ryan said that the loss of the New York 26th district special election last month was due in part to an inability of the GOP to fully explain his budget plan.

He said that in a “short, compressed time period” it is possible for Democrats to lie about the plan, such as by saying current seniors face changes to Medicare.

“It is clear to us that when you get the truth and the facts out, you can win the debate. It wasn’t responded to in an effective and timely manner,” he said.

Once the GOP commits to fully explaining the budget plan and what is at stake, it will do well at the polls, he said.

“If and when we do that, we will be fine,” he said. 

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On Thursday, the AARP announced it was launching a multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign to urge Congress not to cut Medicare or Social Security.

In a sign of how controversial the Ryan plan remains at the event, No American Debt founder and ex-New York Governor George Pataki could not quite bring himself to fully embrace the Ryan Medicare solution.

“I do have some questions on that," he said. "It is something you have to take a look at."

“You don’t have to buy into every single point of every single plan. There are multiple trillions of legitimate, solid deficit reduction measures, many of which have bipartisan support and yet this president refuses to do anything,” he said.

He said that he favors repealing President Obama’s healthcare reform law and then looking at “other measures” that can help strengthen Medicare.

Pataki said that overall he thinks the tax reform plan put forward by the president’s fiscal commission was “excellent” but he said that he disagreed with some aspects of it.

He said that he would do more on the spending side than did the fiscal commission by reducing the federal workforce by 15 percent rather than 10 percent, changing federal employees pensions from a defined benefit plan and repealing the Obama healthcare law.

Pataki said that the $4 trillion in deficit reduction proposed by the fiscal commission should be the minimum included in a bipartisan deal. He also indicated that he would favor Social Security and other entitlement reforms tied to an increase in the debt ceiling this year.

This story was updated at 6:32 p.m.