WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation's health chief says doctors who criticize a Bush administration- backed plan to curb Medicare growth with annual spending targets are ''engaged in a deception of the American public.''

Dr. Louis Sullivan, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told a group of female physicians Thursday an American Medical Association attempt ''to conjure a picture of governmental control and rationing of health care'' is off base.

''That is not correct,'' Sullivan said in a speech to the American Medical Women's Association. ''They are engaged in a deception of the American public.''

He said the plan backed by the administration and approved last week by a House subcommittee would help reduce growth in physician spending under Medicare, which has been growing by 16 percent a year.

''The introduction of Medicare reform will help to meet the changing landscape of health care in our nation,'' Sullivan said. ''It is a step that might have been anticipated by America's physicians.''

Sullivan outlined the plan for the American Medical Association in a speech to the group's annual convention earlier this week, saying it offers a better cost-control solution than a total overhaul of Medicare.

But Dr. James Sammons, AMA executive vice president, said the plan would result in ''rationing'' of medical care.

Dr. Susan C. Stewart, president-elect of the American Medical Women's Association, said her group has taken no position on the proposed Medicare overhaul.

Under the plan, the government would set an ''expenditure target'' for Medicare physician spending, based on the previous year's spending with adjustments for inflation and the number of Medicare enrollees. If the target is exceeded one year, the money could be recovered by cutting the next year's budget.

The plan also would change the way doctors are reimbursed by setting a uniform national fee schedule that would take into account the time, effort and overhead needed to perform a specific service. Under the schedule, family practitioners and other physicians whose services are mostly in the form of office visits would see their fees rise at the expense of surgeons, ophthalmologists and other specialists.

A third part of the plan would limit the amount a physician could charge a patient above the amount reimbursed by Medicare.

Sullivan has said the administration would not accept the changes in physician payment and balance billing without expenditure targets, which are aimed at controlling the volume of medical services.