The financially troubled Prince George's County public hospital system, faced with fewer patients and bigger deficits, has decided to fire 650 employes, nearly a quarter of the 2,824 persons who work at its three facilities in Cheverly, Laurel and Bowie.

The action, effective this Friday, was approved Monday night by the embattled board of the nonprofit Community Hospital and Health Care Systems, Inc. (CHHCS), which for months has been plagued by internal bickering and public criticism of its management of the county hospitals.

"This is a staffing reduction and not a layoff," said Corbett A. Price, a vice president of Hospital Corporation of America, recently hired to manage the hospital system. "It is permanent. There will be no call-backs."

Hospitals spokeswoman Mary Stuart Rizk said the firings would apply to all departments of the county's three hospitals, and to administrators as well as other employes.

"We're not shrinking services but shrinking the number providing the services," she said.

The firings are aimed at saving $3 million for the system, which includes Prince George's General in Cheverly, Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital and the Bowie Health Center, an emergency care center.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, officials said, the system had a net operating deficit of $2 million to $3 million. The previous year, its deficit was $11,000.

At the same time, reflecting a national trend, the number of occupied beds has dropped, as has the average length of time spent in the hospitals.

At Prince George's General, for example, 69 percent of the 550 beds have been occupied in 1985 compared to 75 percent in 1982, and the average patient's stay has dropped from 8.6 to 7.6 days during the same period. At Greater Laurel Beltsville, the occupancy rate has remained at about 51 percent, but the average stay has declined from 8.4 to 7.2 days.

Rick Wade, a spokesman for the Maryland Hospital Association, said the average stay had dropped 5.9 percent and admissions declined 5.3 percent statewide during the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year. Seventy percent of Maryland hospitals have reduced staff in the past year, he said.

John T. Emmerich, president of Hospital Employees Local 63, representing 1,000 mostly blue-collar workers at the facilities, said the discharges were needed to save the system "for the rest of the employes."

"This is not a phenomenon affecting our hospital system per se," he said. "I'm not blaming management. Management is not a major contributing factor. . . . I think it was inevitable."

Carol Bragg, head of the Prince George's General chapter of the Maryland Nurses Association, could not be reached for comment. She met yesterday with hospital officials, according to Price.

"We talked about the quality of care," said Price. "It won't be diminished." The nurses are scheduled to meet today to discuss developments.

The three hospitals are owned by the county and, since 1982, have been leased to CHCCS, a private nonprofit corporation composed of community leaders.

The County Council created the corporation to improve hospital administration.

This summer, CHCCS hired the Hospital Corporation of America to take over day-to-day management of the system.

Earlier this year, there were allegations of conflicts of interest, mismanagement and nepotism on the corporation board.

Recently, board chairman Francis J. Aluisi was ousted after an internal memorandum questioned the propriety of a trip he and a female companion took to a Mexican medical school. Aluisi's air fare was paid by a doctor-supported fund.

Aluisi was replaced by Winfield M. Kelly, a former county executive who presided over Monday night's board meeting. He could not be reached for comment.

Hospitals spokeswoman Rizk said community service and indigent care clinics will not be affected.

The hospital corporation is obliged to pay four to six weeks of severance pay to the discharged employes, depending on their union contracts.

The discharges are being made on the basis of seniority and other factors, Rizk said. CAPTION: Picture, Firings at Prince George's General in Cheverly and two other county hospitals are aimed at saving $3 million. By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post