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Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul said Thursday that Medicare recipients may have to "bear more of the burden" to shore up the health program's finances as rising numbers of seniors rely on its benefits.
While accepting a business group's endorsement, the tea party-backed Paul told reporters that dealing with looming Medicare shortfalls will require a bipartisan solution, but said options could include higher premiums.
"Nobody wants that," Paul said during a question-and-answer session in a steamy business warehouse. "I don't want higher premiums. But I also don't want the system to be bankrupt where we can't pay for Medicare at all.
"So I think we need to be adults and talk about the fact that we're short of money."
Trustees who oversee Medicare have projected the Medicare Hospital trust fund would be exhausted in 2029.
During an interview earlier Thursday on WHAS-AM in Louisville, Paul was asked what cuts could be made to such popular programs as Medicare as the Republican spoke of the need for spending cuts across government.
"You want to have more participation by the person who's receiving the entitlement," Paul replied. "By that I mean that they need to be more involved with some sort of economic transaction every time they use their entitlement, and that means they have to bear more of the burden."
Later, Paul said the problem is purely demographic, caused by surging numbers of retirees compared to people left in the work force.
"We have to address it head on and not put our head in the sand and say we'll just keep borrowing money," he said.
Paul has previously stressed that he would not change Medicare rules for retirees or people nearing retirement.
He has said that eligibility may have to be looked at along with other options to help shore up Medicare, but said in an interview following the May primary that "I'm not jumping up and down and saying let's raise the age."
Paul's campaign has said about half of Paul's medical income as a Bowling Green eye doctor has come from Medicare and Medicaid payments, amounts it has characterized as in line with the average for eye doctors nationally.
Paul is locked in a closely watched race against Democrat Jack Conway, whose campaign seized on Paul's comments to question his commitment to the government health program for seniors.
Conway campaign spokesman John Collins said Paul wants to "force seniors to pay more for basic health care, and put more money into his own pocket. It's just another example of him being out of step with Kentucky values."
Meanwhile, Paul picked up an endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business, marking his second business endorsement in days. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it backs Paul and launched a $500,000 ad campaign in Kentucky that accuses Conway of supporting Medicare cuts by backing the federal health care overhaul.
Conway has denounced the chamber ad as a scare tactic.
"If seniors ought to be scared by any candidacy, they ought to be scared by Rand Paul's for a number of reasons. He's called Medicare socialism, essentially," Conway said in an interview Wednesday.
Paul sounded business-friendly themes Thursday in accepting the NFIB endorsement during a campaign swing through Louisville, the state's largest city and Conway's hometown. Conway, the state's attorney general, needs to roll up huge margins in Louisville to try to offset Paul's perceived advantages in rural areas of Kentucky.
Paul said government needs to "get out of the way" of private business - calling it the best prescription for job growth. He called for relaxing regulations and urged a permanent extension of Bush-era tax cuts.
"Giving someone a one-time stimulus check, or a one-time tax cut that expires doesn't allow the predictability that business needs," he said.
Keeping up another familiar theme, Paul railed against the health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, saying it will increase health care costs for small businesses, which he said threatens to curb job growth.
Tom Underwood, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Paul sympathizes with the challenges faced by small businesses.
"Having his own small private practice he's made payrolls, he understands what the challenges are," Underwood said.
Underwood said he didn't expect his group to run TV campaign ads, but instead will send out mailings to its approximately 7,000 Kentucky members.