RICHMOND, NOV. 2 -- A state panel ruled today that Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's closing of a facility for elderly psychiatric patients at Western State Hospital is being carried out too hastily, violating the rights of patients.

The Human Rights Committee of the state mental health department upheld a decision by a local board that ruled that the closing of the geriatric unit at the Staunton, Va., facility was endangering the health and dignity of patients.

In spite of the committee's 4 to 2 vote, which is advisory, the Wilder administration is expected to transfer about 125 elderly patients out of the facility, according to James Bumpas, assistant director of the state mental health department.

John Oliver, chairman of the human rights panel, said the committee wasn't casting judgment on whether closing the facility is proper, but was criticizing the manner in which the shutdown was being implemented.

Not enough advance notice of transfers was being provided to patients and relatives, who also were not being allowed enough involvement in decisions about their care, Oliver charged. "There is a way to do the {closing} process where you protect the rights of the patient and the family," he said. "The trust relationship was breached."

Oliver added that "the process needs to be more individualized," even if that means the state doesn't make its Jan. 1 target.

The planned Jan. 1 shutdown of the facility, one of the most controversial parts of Wilder's nearly $1.4 billion in planned budget cuts, already has led to the transfer of about 50 patients. The measure is expected to save about $3.2 million.

The Staunton facility was where many elderly patients from the Northern Virginia area were referred. Some advocates for the patients have threatened to file suit to stop the transfers, but the matter is not yet in litigation.

J. Marvin Watts, a Loudoun County writer whose 74-year-old mother is hospitalized at Western State, said Wilder's savings are targeted at the "most vulnerable and powerless citizens."

Watts noted that Wilder has retreated on some of his budget cuts; he delayed, for example, the planned closing of Virginia's highway tourist welcome centers.

"It's hard to understand that these {patients} do not merit equal concern," he said.

L.F. Harding, director of Western State, said there were "no guarantees" that some patients might suffer through the transfers but that his staff was doing all it could "to mitigate risks."