Older psychiatric patients at Western State mental hospital in Staunton, Va., could be seriously harmed by a budget-cutting plan to transfer them to other facilities around the state by the end of the year, a local human rights committee has found.

The finding, while advisory, is a slap at cost-saving plans ordered by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to help make up for Virginia's projected $1.4 billion revenue shortfall.

Western State administrators have decided to stop the transfers of more than 100 patients until the finding is reviewed by the state Human Rights Committee and the state commissioner of mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse services, who has the final say on whether the transfer plan will go forward.

Since the plan was announced last month, eight or nine patients have been discharged to nursing homes or licensed homes for adults, and two have been transferred to other hospitals in the state, said John D. Beghtol, Western State's assistant director for community services.

Western State doctors testified at a 5 1/2-hour hearing Tuesday that the abrupt transfers, allowing little time for preparing the elderly patients, could lead to unnecessary trauma and premature deaths.

"The evidence is uncontradicted that this move is not medically indicated," said Andrew McThenia, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, who is representing a group of Western State patients.

If the mental health commissioner does not stop the transfers, McThenia said he would litigate in the courts on the basis that Western State has a contractual obligation to give adequate medical treatment to those patients.

"You're talking about snatching senior citizens from the only family they know {hospital staff}, putting them in a hostile environment, and there are serious studies that this increases the risk of death," McThenia said.

"Those people are the easiest to step on," he said.

Laura Dillard, Wilder's press secretary, said that the governor had met with people concerned about Western State, but that the decision to close the geriatric center stands.

"We are taking the steps we can take to ensure that the patients are well taken care of during the move," Dillard said.

Transferring the patients to other facilities and closing Western's geriatric unit would save the state $2.2 million in fiscal 1992, according to state documents, and that saving was the driving force behind the plan.

Thomas A. Howell, acting chairman of the Western State Local Human Rights Committee, said yesterday that the committee's main objection to the plan was the speed with which patients were to be transferred.

Because of lack of preparation, the committee said, the transfers would violate the patients' rights to protection from harm, to treatment with dignity, and to participation in decisions on their own treatment, according to Howell.

"We feel very badly that the facility is being closed, but at the same time we wanted to focus on can these people be moved in the way that is least harmful to them. We weren't happy with" the plan, Howell said.

"If nothing is done to prepare these people, it would be a much, much worse situation," he said.

Despite its finding of violations, the committee approved the overall transfer plan and did not recommend a stay of the transfers, leaving that request to patient advocates, Howell added.

Several patients' family members have objected strongly to the transfers, saying that their relatives would get lower-quality care elsewhere and probably would be even farther from their families, making it difficult to visit.