By Sam Youngman
NORTH CANTON, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan acknowledged on Thursday that his proposed healthcare reforms rely on many of the same spending reductions for which he has criticized President Barack Obama, something that could undercut a central message of the Republican campaign.
Ryan and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, charge that Obama's 2010 health law would weaken the popular Medicare health plan for the elderly by reducing its costs by $716 billion over the coming 10 years.
On Thursday, Ryan acknowledged that his own budget plan would keep the savings included in Obama's Affordable Care Act even as it would do away with the law itself.
"We voted to repeal Obamacare repeatedly, including those cuts," he told reporters at a hot dog stand in Ohio.
"When you repeal all of Obamacare what you end up doing is that repeals (those savings) as well. In our budget we've restored a lot of that," he said, referring to the savings.
Ryan's statement underlines the fact that his own budget plan, which passed the House of Representatives this spring, envisions spending $205 billion less on Medicare than Obama would during that time period.
Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, an Obama ally, told reporters Ryan would not use those savings to improve health coverage.
"While the Ryan plan took the savings, they did not plow any of the money back into strengthening Medicare benefits and in fact they used the money as part of their plan for additional tax cuts for the very wealthy," Van Hollen said on a conference call.
Medicare has moved front and center in the presidential race since Romney picked Ryan to be his running mate on Saturday.
Ryan has galvanized conservatives with his plan to gradually convert Medicare's fee-for-service approach into a system that relies on private insurers to keep costs down.
Under Ryan's plan, retirees would get a set amount of money each year to purchase health insurance on the private market or to pay for traditional Medicare.
The amount of the subsidy would grow at a slower rate than the projected rate of medical inflation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that could force retirees to pay more out-of-pocket costs for their medical care.
The plan would only apply to people younger than 55.
Public reception of the plan has been mixed, with older voters most skeptical. Obama and his fellow Democrats charge that Ryan's approach would "end Medicare as we know it."
OBAMA PLAN UNPOPULAR TOO
Romney and Ryan are banking on the fact that voters, who go to the polls November 6, are also unenthusiastic about Obama's health law.
Obama's planned health savings would come largely through reduced payments to hospitals and insurers, and patient benefits would not be affected. The savings would be used to expand health coverage to 30 million lower-income Americans.
Romney said that too much cost squeezing could prompt health care providers to drop out of the program, leaving Medicare recipients with fewer treatment options. His campaign said on Tuesday it would "restore the funding to Medicare."
"As the seniors in America understand what the President's plan is doing to Medicare, they're going to find it unacceptable," Romney told a news conference in Greer, South Carolina on Thursday.
As a congressman, Ryan was known for his detailed presentations about the merits of his plan and the perils of rising health costs. But the Romney campaign so far has avoided discussing details of the plan on the campaign trail.
"Romney wants Ryan to be the Coke Zero of his campaign: All the bold taste, but none of the calories of a detailed policy discussion of entitlements," said Dante Scala, a political analyst at the University of New Hampshire.
One Republican strategist with knowledge of the campaign's thinking said that its cautious approach was less due to Ryan's abilities than a desire to avoid a repeat of the disastrous reception of the party's 2008 vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.
"I think it's smart that he gains his footing, his traction and his comfort level," the strategist said. "Frankly, I'm pleased that they're erring on the side of caution as they tell the country who he is."
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by David Brunnstrom)