The Prince George's County Council voted yesterday to protest a decision by directors of three county hospitals to defer admission of some poor patients for nonemergency care until they prove their ability to pay.

The council also asked county lawyers for an opinion on whether the policy violates the lease agreement between the county and the Community Hospital and Health Care Systems Inc. (CHHCS), the nonprofit corporation that controls the public hospitals. CHHCS was created by the council in 1983 when officials were seeking a less political administration of the county-owned hospitals.

"If people are sick, they deserve care. That's why we had the county hospitals in the first place," said Council Member Hilda Pemberton.

The furor over treatment of indigent patients is the latest in a number of problems that have plagued the hospitals recently.

Last week, 615 employes were fired from the three hospitals -- Prince George's General Hospital, Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital and the Bowie Medical Center.

The controversial staff reductions were recommended by Hospital Corp. of America, the company hired by hospital directors in June to manage the system. The firings are expected to save $3 million for the system, which lost between $2 million and $3 million last fiscal year.

Winfield Kelly, who is chairman the CHHCS board of directors, said last week that the hospitals, with the approval of physicians, will defer admission of patients for nonemergency treatment until they can prove their ability to pay hospital bills. The hospitals also will require payment "up front" for some charges not covered by insurance, he said.

Prince George's General delivers care to more than 40 percent of the county's poor, officials said.

The council agreed on a voice vote to write to the CHHCS board to criticize the policy change and raise the possibility that it may violate the lease.

Provision of certain "community services," including health care for the indigent, is required in the terms of the lease, county lawyers said. They had not been notified of the details of the policy change, however, so they could not determine whether it violated the lease.

Hospital spokesman Corbett A. Price said yesterday that the hospitals will continue to provide emergency care to indigents.

"There's no reason you can't go through a certification procedure [to determine ability to pay] . . . before you provide nonemergency care," he said.

He added that he did not believe the policy violated the lease with the county and that it was standard at many other hospitals.