Virginia Health Department officials said yesterday that they have launched an investigation of Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in the wake of allegations that a nurse administered morphine overdoses in an attempt to hasten the deaths of two terminally ill patients.

Stephanie Sivert, who heads the Health Department's hospital-licensing unit, said the state wants to make sure the hospital has appropriate systems to manage its staffs, but she declined to describe details of the probe.

Registered nurse Rhea E. Henson, of Fairfax County, has not been charged in the death of either patient. The Virginia Board of Nursing, which issued an emergency suspension of her license Wednesday, said Henson admitted to administering inappropriate doses of morphine to the two men, both of whom died soon afterward. Homicide detectives are investigating whether morphine caused the deaths.

Henson's attorneys say that Henson did nothing wrong, that she has been the victim of "cruel" rumors and that she has an exemplary record of nursing over 25 years.

The state action came less than a month after the federal Health Care Financing Administration told the 151-bed Fairfax County hospital that serious fire code violations must be corrected or the hospital risks losing Medicare payments, which are essential to any hospital's survival.

"They found a number of deficiencies, which are typical, minor kinds of things," said Inova Fair Oaks Administrator William A. Brown. "We submitted the plan of correction right away. . . . I am challenging them and asking them to reconsider. I think they erred."

Sivert said that in May, state officials found other deficiencies, including a failure to perform autopsies in cases that called for them. "The medical staff should attempt to secure autopsies in all cases of unusual deaths of medical, legal or educational interest," Sivert said.

The hospital also failed to perform physical exams or take medical histories before or shortly after admitting some patients, and it violated some infection-control rules, Sivert said.