Montgomery County and Maryland health officials, citing "life threatening" conditions to elderly patients at the Bethesda Health Center, have imposed a 21-day ban on admissions to the nursing home.

"The public health, safety and welfare of the patients housed at Bethesda Health Center is in jeopardy," state Health Secretary Charles R. Buck Jr. said in a Jan. 26 letter to David Becker, the nursing home's owner.

Buck said three state and county inspections late last month found that "conditions in the facility are of such gravity as to be considered 'life threatening.' " The investigators said the dangerous conditions included inadequate patient care, a shortage of properly trained nurses, fire-safety violations and errors in the administration of medication.

About 170 people, most of them elderly, live at the center, at 5721 Grosvenor Lane.

Becker yesterday declined comment on the admissions ban, which officials said was the third one imposed there by the state or Montgomery County in the past three years. Becker's attorney, Charles Chester, said the inspection results and admissions ban were "unfortunate."

Conditions at the nursing home are "absolutely not life threatening," Chester added. "We have worked over the weekend to correct whatever deficiencies there were. We're now fully in the clear, and are interested in cooperating with the state."

Harold Gordon, chief of the state health department's licensing division , said yesterday that state and county inspectors made a follow-up visit to the nursing home Thursday and found some improvements had been made since the admissions ban was imposed. Gordon said he may consider lifting the ban next week.

Meanwhile, conditions at the home pose no serious threat to the elderly patients there, Gordon stressed. "Our assumption is that while life-threatening practices are taking place, the nursing home will make improvements," he said. "If the state felt that any one patient was in serious jeopardy, we would move immediately to shut it down or take it over."

Top health officials privately said the admissions ban was imposed to prod the nursing home to comply with health regulations.

Last year, after the facility was cited for more that 100 violations of state and federal nursing-home regulations, Maryland health officials refused to renew the home's operating license. Becker was later granted a provisional license for one year on the condition that he bring the facility into compliance with health standards.

In their report on "life threatening deficiencies" detected last month, investigators cited the case of one patient "exhibiting signs of urinary tract bleeding, infection (and) severe discomfort." The patients' nursing needs "were not being evaluated and documented to insure timely, appropriate treatment," the investigators' report said.

Chester said that although some nurses had not kept accurate patient records, there was "never a threat to that or any other patient."

Investigators also said that one female patient received medication intended for her sister, who was also a resident of the nursing home. One man also received three medications and vitamins that were prescribed for his wife, the report said.

Chester said the nursing home has recently placed name tags over the beds of all patients.