A Reagan administration proposal to revise hospital staffing regulations could lead to the loss of jobs for thousands of specially trained social workers, members of the National Association of Social Workers charged at last week's opening of their national headquarters in Silver Spring.

The association's members also asserted that the proposed changes could affect patient care, especially among the elderly.

Richard Schweiker, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has proposed revising regulations governing staffing, sanitation, libraries and social services at hospitals. His plan, being studied by HHS, would eliminate the requirement that a hospital's social service department hire a highly trained social worker for its patients.

Annett Maxey, the association's new executive director, said that if Schweiker's proposal is implemented, "hospitals just won't feel the compulsion to have these services."

Lynn May, associate administrator for external affairs at HHS's Health Care Financing Administration, said the proposed changes are designed to give hospitals more flexibility in administering Medicare and Medicaid regulations.

He said it was too soon to tell how the changes would affect social workers. But he added that "they are not meant to affect social workers one way or the other."

At an open house at the headquarters on Eastern Avenue, representatives of the 90,000-member association, which has about 8,000 members in the Washington area, said they were preparing to fight to keep members from losing employment.

Officials said their strategy would include trying to meet with Schweiker and lobbying Congress.

"Part of our mission is to protect social workers' jobs, aside from patient care," said Maryanne Keenan, senior staff associate at the association.

Judith Ratliff, associate director of the department of social work at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, estimated that more than 35 percent of Washington area social workers are employed by hospitals.

The role they play varies, she said. "We assist patients in their discharge planning, connect them with different community services they will need after leaving the hospital, provide patients with adjustment counseling on long-term or terminal illnesses and deal with child abuses cases of all kinds."

They also help pregnant women adjust to the idea of motherhood and instruct them on prenatal care, she said.

Lita Talbott, head of the University of Maryland's department of social work, expressed concerned that patients, particularly the elderly, will not receive the care they need after being discharged from hospitals and sent to nursing homes. Social workers often help them adjust to their new surroundings, she said.

Not everyone at the open house thought the proposed change would mean a drastic cut in jobs for social workers.

Stanley Kissell, director of the National Institutes of Health social work department, said the profession "has established itself to a point where it doesn't have to rely on federal regulations to maintain its professionalism."

Social workers are involved in nearly all facets of social and public service, including counseling students in public school, working with mentally retarded adults, assisting in juvenile justice programs and helping families cope within the welfare system.

"Social workers don't just hand out welfare checks anymore," said Ghita Levine, the association's public affairs director. She said association members must meet strict educational and professional requirements as well as pass a certification exam.

The association staff here oversees professional standards, acts as an advocate for social services with the goverments and makes referrals to agencies for the public.

Social work as a profession is about 100 years old, dating to a time when it was commonly believed that poverty and weakness in character reflected personal failures or flaws in mental health.

Social workers worked to dissuade people of that notion by promoting the idea that sickness, insanity, deliquency and poverty were ills to be studied and treated