ABINGDON — Work on Liberty University’s new school of health sciences is expected to begin shortly, Jerry Falwell Jr. said Thursday after gaining approval here for $12 million in funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

University officials expect total enrollment to be more than 4,000 students within five years of opening. Most of those students will be training in nursing and other health sciences, but they also expect to graduate 40 to 50 doctors from an associated school of osteopathic medicine.

“I believe this will become one of our signature schools at the university. I think it will be one of the main things Liberty is remembered for 100 years from now, the graduates we turn out to go into the medical profession,” said Falwell, the university’s chancellor.

Liberty’s decision to expand into medicine and health sciences aligns with the school’s evangelical mission and desire to produce skilled workers in high-need areas, said Emily Heady, the Liberty dean who wrote the Tobacco Commission proposal.

“We’re a very service-oriented campus and we know that this area needs health care personnel,” said Heady during a news conference on the Liberty campus a few hours after the proposal was approved.

“There’s a massive shortage here. Over 60 percent of the area around here is a medically underserved area and we wanted to meet this need.”

Doctors of osteopathy are licensed just the same as any other physician, but osteopathy programs may include more training in holistic, whole-body medicine than MD programs, Heady said.

Liberty’s four-year program will train doctors for primary care work, and will not offer the degree of specialization of many MD programs. The length and depth of training will be similar to that required of an MD student focusing on general practice or pediatrics, Heady said.

“Instead of opening up a medical school that has 75 specializations, this lets us focus in on one that we know is needed and that we know we can do,” Heady said.

Heady said the next step is for Liberty to hire a dean and fill other leadership positions for the new programs. The school already has begun interviewing candidates and will seek accreditation from the American Osteopathic Association.

“We feel so blessed. We’re kind of over the moon right now,” said Heady. “This is a great ministry opportunity and we’re really grateful that we have the opportunity to do it so quickly.”

The new 105,000-square-foot center will be built in Campbell County across U.S. 29 from the Lynchburg Regional Airport on a knoll overlooking U.S. 460, said Ron Godwin, the university provost.

The commission that funded the project was created by the General Assembly in 1999 to help tobacco farmers hurt by the decrease in tobacco production in Southside and Southwest Virginia and to spur economic development in those areas. Its members met in Abingdon on Thursday morning to vote to fund several economic development projects. Liberty’s was the largest by far.

In terms of economic development, the university estimates the new schools could generate $19 million in annual spending in Southside and $1.2 million annually in state and local tax revenues.

It could also be a way to keep Lynchburg’s graduates from leaving the area. Studies show most students will practice within 50 miles of wherever they gain their clinical experience, Godwin said.

“They’re going to be working in the different areas of health care in those communities,” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County. “That will bring an attachment and offer an opportunity for the students to reside there after completing their education.”

Byron is a member of the commission and a member of the special projects committee that recommended funding of Liberty’s project.

The $12 million grant is one of the largest in the 12-year history of the commission. The largest, $25 million, was granted last year to King College in Bristol to start its own medical school.

Godwin said Liberty won’t be competing with King College, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg or the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke. The region has such a need for nurses and doctors that there is room for everyone, he said. He said 27 counties in Southside have been designated as medically underserved.

Though the building is not expected to open until 2013, work will begin immediately, he said. Some classes could be offered as early as next fall. Falwell said the site is nearly ready for construction. Both said the two-year time frame will be adequate for both the physical construction and recruiting new leadership, faculty and staff.

The commission funding is contingent on a 50/50 match from the university. Falwell said that funding is in place already.

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