Nursing student Courtney Wilson listens to cab driver Randy Cramm's lungs with nurse practitioner Gretchen Speed at the Greater Portland Health clinic, May 9, 2017.

The University of Maine system unveiled a wide-reaching plan Wednesday to double its nursing enrollment over the next five years, which includes adding 1,000 new slots for students wishing to pursue a nursing degree online.

The move is an effort to combat what health care leaders are calling an impending workforce crisis.

Health care leaders are working to attract 250 new nurses to Maine, and are partnering with the state’s colleges and universities to graduate an additional 400 license-eligible nursing students each year to counteract 3,200 vacant nursing positions expected across the state by 2025, a deficit that will hit hardest in rural Maine, Chancellor James Page said Wednesday.

Page, along with other presidents of the university’s seven campuses, announced Maine’s five-year plan at the Maine Council on Aging’s annual summit in Augusta.

[UMPI, UMFK start first year of nursing collaboration in Presque Isle]

Tactics the university will pursue include growing the system’s online nursing enrollment capacity to appeal to new students in rural Maine; covering tuition and some fees for new, first-degree nursing students who qualify for the federal Pell Grant at the Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle campuses; and launching a new, accelerated second-degree Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in Machias.

Nearly half of the state’s nurses, particularly along the coast in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Hancock and Waldo counties, are at least 55 years old and are expected to retire within the next decade, University of Maine at Augusta President Rebecca Wyke said.

As the oldest state in the country, with a 65-and-over population expected to grow by more than a third over the next 10 years, Maine’s nursing shortage is unique, Wyke said.

“When you’re talking about an aging workforce, as well as a need to care for that aging population, I think this hits us particularly hard,” she said.

Though the state’s nursing employment forecast has been on the decline, the system’s enrollment has grown by almost 11 percent since 2010.

[New report reveals where Maine’s looming nursing shortage will hit hardest]

In the fall of 2017, nursing enrollment across all areas climbed to 1,920 students, according to Dan Demeritt, the university’s public affairs executive director. Nearly 430 students graduated last year from that pool, the majority of whom found employment somewhere in the state, Wyke said.

Despite the increase, the university still not graduating nursing students quickly enough to meet the growing demand, Demeritt said. Health care professionals estimate that roughly 400 new nurses need to be dispatched across the state each year to combat the shortage.

“It is with an abundance of concern for our state and the patients in our care that we continue to sound the alarm about Maine’s nursing workforce cliff,” Lisa Harvey-McPherson, a nurse and co-chairwoman of the Maine Nursing Action Coalition, told the BDN last year. “Every region of Maine and every health care setting faces challenges as our state ages and a wave of dedicated caregivers approaches retirement.”

This week, Harvey-McPherson lauded UMaine for its efforts.

“The investments and program expansions the University is proposing moves us closer to the additional 400 license-eligible nursing graduates Maine needs each year,” she said.

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