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In shift from campaign pledge, Paul Ryan floats Medicare age tweak

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) arrives for the Barack Obama second presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) arrives for the Barack Obama second presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2

By David Lawder and Kim Dixon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is floating a plan that would force Medicare cuts onto people aged 56 and younger, breaking a campaign promise not to touch benefits for those older than 55.

The tweak is under discussion by Republicans as part of Ryan's fiscal 2014 budget plan in order to meet an important Republican pledge to balance the federal budget in 10 years, people familiar with the plan said.

Ryan's change would reduce expenditures slightly for the costly healthcare program near the end of the 10-year budget window. Americans now become eligible for Medicare benefits at age 65.

But it provides fresh ammunition for Democrats to attack Republicans for being too eager to put the burden of reducing deficits on those reliant on the social safety net while minimizing tax increases on the wealthy - a refrain that reverberated throughout last year's presidential and congressional election campaigns.

As the Republican vice presidential candidate last year, Ryan deflected criticism of his plan for Medicare cuts by saying that these would not apply to those 55 or older. He and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had repeatedly said this would keep the popular fee-for-service healthcare program largely unchanged for current seniors and provide a 10-year window for people to make savings adjustments as they contemplate retirement.

The change, if adopted, would cut that window down to nine years.

Ryan is expected to release his fiscal 2014 budget plan next week, with a vote on the House floor expected around mid-March.

His plan will reprise his controversial proposal to reduce Medicare spending by converting it to a voucher-like system that subsidizes the purchase of health coverage from private insurers. He proposed similar plans in 2011 and 2012, arguing that without these changes, the program would become too costly and go "bankrupt" as the massive Baby Boom generation ages.

Last year's plan was rebranded as "premium support," and a Republican aide on the Budget Committee said this year's version will be called "competitive bidding."

Ryan spokesman William Allison declined to comment directly on the proposed age change. He said the Budget Committee would advance a "responsible, balanced budget."

"With respect to Medicare, House Republicans will again put forward a real solution to protect and strengthen Medicare for current seniors and future generations," Allison said in an emailed statement. "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."

Republicans, including Ryan, have criticized President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul law for shifting some $700 billion in Medicare payments to hospitals and insurers over 10 years to help fund subsidies for the uninsured.

The Budget Committee aide said Ryan's budget plan would effectively end the provisions known as Obamacare, as it has attempted to do in past years, but it would not restore the higher Medicare payment rates. Instead, it would keep those funds for deficit reduction.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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