BETHESDA, Md. (AP) _ Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. is buying the prosthetics division of NovaCare Inc. to create the leading provider of prosthetic patient services in the country.

Under the deal announced Monday, Hanger is paying $417 million and assuming $38 million in debt from Novacare Orthotics and Prosthetics Inc.

The combined company will retain the Hanger name and will remain headquartered in Bethesda. After the transaction, Hanger Orthopedic will have approximately 625 patient-care centers in 42 states.

``The merger of our company and NovaCare's O&P division establishes Hanger as the clear-cut industry leader,'' said Ivan Sabel, chief executive officer of Hanger Orthopedic.

Sabel will be chief executive of the combined company and Ron Hiscock, president of NovaCare, will be president and chief operating officer.

Orthotic and prosthetic services form a $2 billion segment of the rehabilitation industry. Hanger and NovaCare each operate patient-care centers staffed by medical professionals who design, fabricate, fit and supervise the use of artificial limbs.

At the end of 1998, NovaCare operated 369 patient-care centers in 37 states. Hanger is the largest distributor in the country of custom-made and prefabricated orthotic and prosthetic devices.