The administrator of Inova Mount Vernon hospital has told her staff that a decision to move the financially ailing facility would "provide all of us with stability and hope."

In a memo sent on May 28, administrator Susan Herbert told the medical staff and volunteers that an agreement to "relocate and transform" Inova Mount Vernon could help its survival. A move is opposed by many residents and community leaders in southeast Fairfax County.

Herbert assured the staff that officials were working on long- and short-term strategies to shore up the 232-bed hospital's finances, both to serve its current community and enhance existing and needed services in the southeastern part of the county.

Noting that the 27-year-old facility has fewer patients and worsening debt, Inova officials have said Mount Vernon's troubles are putting more pressure on the five-hospital Inova Health System as a whole.

"One of the options being studied," Herbert wrote in the memo, "is the wisdom of relocating the hospital to improve access to the services provided by Inova Mount Vernon Hospital."

In an interview Tuesday, Herbert said she was not directly advocating relocation. Instead, she said, she was "keeping a very open mind" and wrote the e-mail to try and "create a horizon that we are honestly looking at what can we do to make Mount Vernon successful."

Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said he interpreted the memo to have one message: to support a move.

"I can't read it any other way," Kauffman said. "If there was any doubt these folks have their minds made up . . . there's what they say to the outside world and there's their internal communications."

Kauffman was one of 150 elected officials and county residents who attended a news conference June 4 to protest the possible closure of the hospital and demonstrate their willingness to fight if hospital officials attempt to shutter it or move some of its resources.

Herbert said in the memo that no decisions have been made about the hospital's future or ways to serve residents of southeast Fairfax.

But she added that whatever plan is adopted by Inova, it would take at least three to five years to obtain the regulatory approval and implement the plan.

Warren I. Cikins, a former county supervisor and chairman of the Southeast Health Planning Task Force, which was set up in November to study the hospital's future, said the memo was "in error."

"I gave them hell at Inova when I saw that," Cikins said. "She was wrong," he said, adding that Herbert "doesn't call the shots" about what's to come.

Although the process remains murky, Cikins said there was no chance the hospital would be closed.

"The issue is what kind of hospital is it going to be and how will it maintain some semblance of financial stability," he said. "Does it stay specializing in certain things or be all things to all people? That's a big part of the question."

Herbert agreed, saying Mount Vernon will not close but relocation is on the table, as are other options. "Relocating," she said, "doesn't mean it would close."

"Whether Mount Vernon Hospital is here or is somewhere else, as long as [it] continues to serve the community and the covenant that it was set up with it, I'll be a happy woman," she said. "I think the community would be, too. I haven't weighed in on one side or the other. I've tried to keep a foot in each canoe until [the options] become clear."

The hospital's problems, officials say, center on the loss of patients after the closure of nearby Woodlawn Road, which cuts through Fort Belvoir and was blocked to outside traffic after Sept. 11, 2001. Add financial losses of nearly $5 million since last year, rising pharmaceutical and supply costs, more uninsured patients and the threat of competition from for-profit providers, and Inova officials say it's time to reevaluate the area's health care needs.