The government accepted blame Friday for six deaths at a veterans' hospital in suburban Chicago, where poor care has forced an end to certain surgeries and a shuffling of staff.

The concession followed last week's report by investigators in the Veterans Affairs' Department, who said they found improper treatment, untimely tests and unnecessary surgeries at the North Chicago hospital.Despite the critical report and the acknowledgment that poor care led to deaths, the department's chief medical officer said the 1,004-bed hospital has an important role in treating veterans.

"To say it is the worst hospital in our system would not be a fair statement," Dr. James Holsinger Jr. said. "They have a number of programs other than vascular surgery, which was the area the inspector general was especially critical of."

One hundred forty patients died from June 1989 to March 1990, the inspector general's report said. After extensive review of 15 cases, the agency accepted blame in six deaths.

In one of the six, "There was absolutely no question in our minds that the VA was at fault in the care of the patient," Holsinger said.

In the other five, "We were not clearly sure if the complication was natural or the complication was due to less-than-quality care," he said. "Whenever we see this, we find in favor of the veterans. That's a longstanding position."

But in nine of the 15 deaths, the VA takes no blame.

"The care issue was not the determining factor in what happened to the patients," Holsinger said.

Holsinger and VA spokeswoman Donna St. John said they would not describe the six deaths that were linked to poor care until family members were notified, a process started Thursday night.