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The Medicare debate, fueled by the Republicans who control Congress and who unveiled their reform plan for the runaway program Wednesday, offers an enticing political wedge for the Democratic minority.

That is the thought behind a newly distributed videotape in which well-known actors gravely try to warn elderly Americans that their medical benefits are about to be cut. Such a wedge, some political experts believe, could stir emotions sufficiently to restore Democrats as the majority party in next year's election.No doubt it beats having to come up with an idea of their own.

How sad that the welfare of elderly citizens should take a back seat to slick media politics, particularly at a time when Medicare's costs are increasing by about 10 percent each year.

While the GOP's plan has its weaknesses, not the least of which is its lack of any detailed accounting estimates, it is a good-faith effort that in some ways comes closer to President Clinton's own plan than congressional Democrats would like. The fact remains that congressional Democrats have yet to offer any alternatives for consideration.

The GOP's plan would raise premiums. Those paying for Medicare Part B coverage would see increases from $46.10 to about $93 by 2002. But that is only $10 more than the president's plan. Premiums would rise faster and higher for wealthier seniors.

But it would give elderly Americans more choices, including the option of buying private insurance instead. They could choose lower premiums and higher deductibles. They could switch among HMOs, medical savings accounts and traditional fee-for-service programs during the first two years.

The plan also tries to cut waste and fraud while reducing government payments to hospitals with large case loads of poor patients.

Medicare has long been seen as a political pariah. Anyone touching it was thought to be inviting the wrath of constituents. But with medical inflation and a rising deficit threatening to bankrupt the nation, Medicare reform can no longer be ignored.

Any critics of the GOP plan should be prepared to offer alternatives for consideration. Keeping the current system simply won't do.