A volunteer effort by Arlington doctors to treat the needy will begin this week, more than a year after the ounty medical society unanimously agreed to help people whose government health benefits were cut.

"Project Unite" will give free medical care to 84 adults and children in Arlington who lost Medicaid coverage last year because of cutbacks imposed by Virginia health officials.

The program, at least at this stage, will not help the newly unemployed, as was implied at a White House ceremony last week in honor of National Volunteers Week. At that briefing, the Arlington program was cited as one of 23 volunteer efforts nationwide by doctors to help jobless Americans who have lost their health insurance.

"It's a genuine, noble response," said Dr. Martin Wasserman, director of the Arlington County Department of Human Resources, who asked the county medical society last year for help in treating those who lost government benefits. "A number of the other projects noted by the White House arose out of unemployment, but ours didn't."

It has taken more than a year to identify the 400 Arlingtonians who lost benefits and to find those interested in the free care, said Patricia Murray, executive director of the Arlington County Medical Society. Identification cards are being printed and letters will be sent on Monday to the 84 people who have requested help, Wasserman said. Hospitals and medical laboratories in Arlington also are participating by not billing those people with "Project Unite" cards, Murray said.

The Arlington program is one of the few in the area. Although doctors traditionally have given free or reduced cost treatment to patients who could not afford to pay, increased unemployment and cuts in federal assistance have not sparked other formal programs, spokesmen for the local medical societies said.

In Fairfax County, the women's auxiliary of the medical society started a program five years ago that offers free doctor's care only if the Fairfax resident meets strict income guidelines, is suffering an acute illness and is not receiving any government aid. Those eligible are sent to participating doctors for treatment costing $1 to $2 a visit.

The "Med-Cap" program served 33 people in February, reported Laurie Schaeffer, outreach coordinator for the Northern Virginia Family Service, which now runs the program. The "very low" income guidelines cannot be disclosed because "we'd be swamped" with applicants, Schaeffer said. "Some doctors are only willing to see one per month."

The program is not available in the southern part of the county, because the Mount Vernon-Alexandria Medical Society does not participate, Schaeffer said.

The D.C. and Prince George's County medical societies have no formal programs. Montgomery County offers a referral service under which low-income patients are steered to doctors who have volunteered to treat them.