After than two years of legal wrangling, a group of Washington hospitals this week began receiving natural gas purchased at a bargain price on the spot market, gaining them a greater degree of independence from the Washington Gas Light Co.

The hospitals made arrangements in 1985 to obtain gas directly from a Yankee Resources Inc., an independent supplier based in Ohio, and to have that gas transported to WGL's distribution system. But the plan ran aground when they were unable to obtain the cooperation of WGL, which controls the final link for the gas.

Gas is flowing to the hospitals this week as the result of a settlement of an antitrust suit filed by the hospitals against WGL in November 1985. As a part of the settlement, reached in May, WGL agreed to seek regulatory approval for the transportation of gas to consumers within the District.

"It's been a long process -- much longer than we expected -- but we're happy with the way it's turned out so far, and we hope it's going to mean real benefits for the institutions and their patients," said Michael Higgins, president of the D.C. Hospital Energy Cooperative Inc., the organization representing the hospitals.

Together, the hospitals -- Capitol Hill Hospital, Greater Southeast Community Hospital, Hadley Memorial Hospital, National Rehabilitation Hospital, Providence Hospital, Sibley Memorial Hospital, and Washington Hospital Center Inc. -- are realizing a savings that is in the "high tens of thousands" of dollars per year by purchasing gas on the spot market, Higgins said.

But they believe their savings should be even greater. "We believe that the rate we're presently being charged {by WGL} may be as much as twice as high as it ought to be," Higgins said.

Currently, WGL charges the hospitals according to the "value to the user" principle, according to Scott Klurfeld, an attorney for the coalition. The principle, generally used by the D.C. Public Service Commission in administering local utilities, means that WGL can fix the price up to a level that is just below the cost of alternative fuels such as oil.

The coalition believes that principle is inappropriate and that it should be charged instead according to rules established by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC generally has held that utilities can only charge users for their actual costs in transporting the fuel plus a small margin of profit.

Klurfeld estimates that if WGL were to bill the hospitals according to federal guidelines, it annually would save some members of the group as much as half a million dollars each.

The coalition has appealed rates filed by WGL in June. FERC will consider that request sometime in November, and if it determines that WGL's rates were set unfairly, the hospitals will be entitled to a refund, Klurfeld said.

Klurfeld said that by allowing large users to procure natural gas for themselves, WGL will be able to reduce what it charges residential energy users. He argues that when large users obtain natural gas on their own, WGL need not resort to purchasing expensive natural gas to satisfy the area's total energy needs.

"When you kick the hospitals out, it means WGL can cut back on expensive gas. If WGL doesn't have to spread some of its cheap gas around to hospitals, that means residential users save money," he said.

But a spokesperson for WGL disputed that. "Given the amount of gas that we buy, these customers are not purchasing enough that it will have that much of an impact," said Cate Barnett