In talking about his plans to turn Medicare into a premium-support — i.e. voucher — program during the 2012 presidential election, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan hammered one point again and again; it would not affect anyone 55 or older.
"Our solution to preserve, protect and save Medicare does not affect your benefits," Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, said during an Aug. 18, 2012, campaign stop in Florida. "Let me repeat that — our plan does not affect the benefits for people who are in or near retirement."
But that claim may be changing, and Americans in their late 50s might not like it. The Hill reported Tuesday that Ryan told a group of GOP lawmakers at a recent luncheon that he may have to raise the exemption age as high as 59 — those currently younger than 59 could face limits on Medicare benefits.
"Paul Ryan was pretty clear that that could happen," an unidentified GOP lawmaker told The Hill. "You could have to take it up to a higher number like 56, 57, 59 ... it could be higher than 55, but he also said, ‘We don’t have any numbers yet.'"
Ryan is scheduled to talk more about the outlines of his budget plans Wednesday with reporters.
The issue at hand is that Ryan's original budget plan, beloved by conservatives, aimed to balance the budget by the year 2040. Among the provisions were dramatic Medicare privatization reforms that critics say would mean less money in the hands of future seniors.
But, under pressure by conservatives in Congress, Ryan agreed to revise his budget to balance by 2023. Economists are skeptical that he could hit that target without cuts in Medicare, unless he was planning to make deep cuts in defense spending or Social Security.
"It is possible in terms of arithmetic,” said Alan Auerbach, an economist and budget expert at the University of California, Berkeley, to Talking Points Memo. “But it is also implausible.”
That has GOP centrists, who have been making the reassuring "55-and-older" argument to seniors in their districts for years, uncomfortable. They worry that the party's efforts to placate tea party conservatives might trigger a backlash among seniors, a traditionally solid Republican demographic.
“The anger [among centrists] is that, ‘Look, we’ve been home and we’ve told the people you don’t have to worry — 55 and older ... so now because these nuts are demanding a 10-year [balanced] budget ... you’re expecting us [to pass it] again?’" said Former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, who chairs the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. "And so I don’t think that’s going to happen."
When asked by Talking Points Memo, a Ryan spokesman appeared to leave the door slightly open for an age hike.
“With respect to Medicare, Chairman Ryan will again put forward a real solution to protect and strengthen Medicare for current seniors and future generation,” the spokesman told the website. “His reforms ensure no changes for those in or near retirement, a sharp contrast to the real harm inflicted on seniors by the president’s health care law.”
The question is how "near retirement" one would have to be.