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House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Monday launched a crusade to convince Americans that the GOP can fix Medicare despite Democratic claims that the Republican's overhaul will inevitably lead to harsh cutbacks.

Gingrich said the Republican plan will simply "limit the rate of growth" and that actually, "every year Medicare (spending) will go up." He also defended the plan against criticism it lacks specifics, saying on Sunday that "a stealth plan beats no plan."Gingrich, R-Ga., Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and other Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a recent Republican convert, were leading a public meeting here Monday on the theme of avoiding bankruptcy in the Medicare program.

No Democrat accepted the Congressional Institute's invitation to share the stage with Gingrich and the other Republicans, who will be holding dozens of town meetings across the country this month to sell the public on the necessity of their plan to squeeze $270 billion from projected Medicare spending over seven years.

Gingrich, appearing on NBC's "Today" show, said Monday that the Clinton administration's own Medicare trustees have concluded the program "starts to go broke next year and is bankrupt in seven years. What we want to do is limit the rate of growth."

He dismissed criticism that the plan could cost seniors an additional $1,000 a year, calling that "a scare tactic from our political opponents." He acknowledged, however, that senior citizens already expect "a traditional pattern of slight increases each year . . . to fit the inflation rate."

Irate Democrats are mounting their own forums and launching petition drives to avoid what Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., claims is the "Medicare Pearl Harbor" looming when Congress returns from its August recess.

Addressing charges that the GOP was concocting a "stealth" plan that will mean higher costs for seniors and less freedom to choose their doctors, Gingrich said Sunday he expects to unveil his plan by the first or second week of September, giving lawmakers several weeks to scrutinize it before any final vote.

Gingrich, on CNN's "Late Edition," said, "A stealth plan beat no plan at all. They don't seem to have any plan" for avoiding bankruptcy in Medicare's hospital fund by 2002.

Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, sent their troops home for the August recess with slide shows and thick packets explaining options the GOP is considering to revamp Medicare, the $178 billion health program for 33 million senior citizens and 4 million disabled workers.

Gingrich repeated his promise that if senior citizens like Medicare the way it is, they can keep their current fee-for-service coverage, which allows them to go to any doctor they wish.

"We're saying that those senior citizens who want to can stay in the current program," said Gingrich. Their copayments and deductibles are likely to go up "at about the same rate" they have "over the last eight years."

Seniors now must pay $716 for the first day in the hospital, a $100 annual deductible for doctors' bills and 20 percent copayments, and $46 a month premiums for their Part B coverage.