BOSTON (State House News Service) – Massachusetts hospitals are short on workers to the tune of 19,000 full-time positions statewide and the shortage, combined with hospital financial losses, has created “an unprecedented crisis” for providers that affects both access and cost for patients, a new report concluded.

The estimate of the hospital workforce shortage is based on a survey the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association (MHA) conducted this summer with hospitals representing 70 percent of the total acute care hospital employment in Massachusetts. Those hospitals had 6,650 vacancies and the estimate of 19,000 statewide was reached by “[e]xtrapolating the vacancy data to all positions in all Massachusetts acute care hospitals,” the organization that represents hospitals said.

The highest vacancy rate among survey respondents was for licensed practical nurses, a position that provides basic nursing care and for which there was a 56 percent vacancy rate. High vacancy rates were also reported for pulmonary function technicians (35 percent), home health aides (34 percent), mental health workers/technicians (32 percent), and infection control nurses (26 percent). The median vacancy rate across all positions was 17.2 percent, the report said.

MHA said that the shortage of workers, which accelerated through the COVID-19 pandemic, “is driving labor costs to an unsustainable level and destabilizing the already fragile state of hospital financials.”

Through the first half of fiscal year 2022, Massachusetts hospitals spent $445 million on temporary registered nurse staffing. MHA said that amount is “significantly more” than what they had spent in total in any previous budget year and puts Massachusetts “on track to approach an unprecedented $1 billion in spending on just temporary RNs for the full FY2022.”

“It is essential that community members and leaders understand the dire set of circumstances that hospitals are now operating under,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of MHA, said in a statement. “Our healthcare system has never been more fragile, and its leaders have never been more concerned about what’s to come in the months ahead. They are exhausting every option within their control to confront these challenges, but this is an unsustainable reality and providers are in need of support. Healthcare organizations, payers, public officials, and community members must come together to find solutions before access to care is further jeopardized.”

The MHA report recommends that Massachusetts use some of its remaining American Rescue Plan Act money to provide hospitals with financial support, increase training for behavioral health, substance use disorders, and trauma-responsive competencies; extend the Baker administration’s workforce pipeline development strategies, loan forgiveness and scholarship programs from the behavioral health field across all providers; and keep in place public health emergency “flexibilities” that have made licensing, staffing, and capacity innovations easier.