AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine nurses are aging alongside the patients they treat, setting the stage for a critical shortage of nurses across the state by 2025, officials announced Tuesday.

Both Maine and the country have dealt with a deficit of nurses for at least a decade. But now, a coming wave of patients over age 65 coupled with more nurses nearing retirement threatens to worsen the shortage into a crisis.

“There have been a variety of times over the past several decades where we have found ourselves in this situation,” Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday at a media event about the expected shortage. “I would assert that the acuity of this situation today and looking out into the next 10 years is far worse than what we have encountered.”

Without action, Maine will face a shortage of 3,200 registered nurses by 2025, according to new projections released by officials from DHHS and the University of Maine System and nursing organizations.

The estimate incorporates demographics of Maine’s existing nurses, projected demands for health care services as Maine’s population ages, and trends in nursing education.

As Maine’s citizens age, the demand for health care is expected to boom. Maine’s senior population is projected to grow by 37 percent over the next 10 years, and most of them will face chronic health problems such as diabetes and arthritis.

According to a USA TODAY analysis, two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries older than 65 have multiple chronic health conditions. And not only are they sicker than their predecessors, they’re also living longer and battling those conditions for years, the analysis found.

The health care system is ill equipped to serve them, due in no small part to the expected nursing shortage, according to researchers.

“There are more nurses in health care than there are physicians or any other discipline,” said Patricia Boston, president of the American Nurses Association of Maine, which represents 27,000 licenses in the state. “We’re the ones who get to interact with patients and their families in a multitude of settings.”

But rising demand for health care is only one part of the problem. The nurses who treat those patients are also growing older. In 2015, about a third of all registered nurses in Maine were age 55 or older, and many more are over age 45, according to the data released Tuesday.

Maine employed about 14,000 registered nurses in 2015, state statistics show.

Over the coming decade, they’ll begin to retire, just as Maine’s overall working-age population is expected to shrink. Additionally, younger workers who make up the biggest potential pool of new registered nurses is projected to drop by nearly 5 percent, officials said.

“We have a perfect storm,” said Lisa Harvey-McPherson, vice president of government relations for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. “We don’t have enough younger nurses to replace our aging nursing workforce, and we don’t have enough faculty to fill current positions as well as plan for our retirement crisis.”

The Nursing Workforce Forecast released Tuesday projects that Maine must increase the number of newly licensed nurses by about 20 percent each year to head off the anticipated nursing shortage. Without more nurses trained locally, Maine would need to recruit and retain about 600 additional nurses each year.

Today, Maine graduates about 970 nurses each year.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said she will sponsor a bill to enhance the National Nurse Licensing Compact, which allows nursing licenses to cross state lines.

Officials also announced plans Tuesday to increase nurse training opportunities within Maine, beginning with a Maine Nursing Summit planned in the coming months, hosted by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the university system.

“Another portion of our problem is we simply lack the resources to increase the number of nursing students that we have today,” said Robert Neely, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Maine System. “In 2015 we had to turn away more than 15 percent of qualified nursing students. In order to take those students, we have to have the faculty, we have to have the clinical, and we have to have the resources such as simulation labs and other amenities for students.”

Some nursing programs are already responding to the expected shortage. St. Joseph’s College recently won a $1.5 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to help create a new Center for Nursing Excellence at its Standish campus, including simulation lab improvements.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...