Governor signs statewide package including health sciences school for Western

CULLOWHEE – A regional initiative to promote wellness and healthy lifestyles among all population groups, especially the growing number of elderly people in Western North Carolina, took a major step toward reality Thursday, Aug. 5, when Gov. Mike Easley signed a statewide capital improvements plan.

The $463 million package includes $10 million in planning money for Western Carolina University and the Mountain Area Health Education Center to begin work on two buildings as part of a three-pronged collaborative regional effort called the N.C. Center for Health and Aging. Also partnering in the initiative is the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

“This bill will improve health care across the state and bring high-skill, high-wage jobs to hard-working North Carolina families,” said Easley, who signed the bill in ceremonies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University.

Western is planning a $34.8 million School of Health and Gerontological Sciences facility in Cullowhee, replacing a structure built in 1924 as a dormitory. The new 145,200 square-foot building will enable the university to expand its existing undergraduate degree programs in nursing, clinical laboratory sciences, health information administration, emergency medical care, environmental health, nutrition and dietetics, athletics training, communication sciences disorders and therapeutic recreation, and master’s level programs in nursing, physical therapy and health services management.

The new building will allow Western to add new degree programs in occupational therapy and gerontology, expand an award-winning gerontology outreach effort, and add a master’s degree program in social work with specialization in rural and gerontological social work. The facility also will provide research space for interdisciplinary adaptive device development and for human movement science laboratories.

“With obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease on the rise across the country, and with an increasing population of senior citizens in our region, it is crucial that we focus on the promotion of health and wellness, the treatment and prevention of disease, and the expansion of the health care workforce to meet the growing needs of the people of North Carolina,” said Western Chancellor John W. Bardo.

MAHEC is planning to build the N.C. Center for Health Leadership, a $38 million facility that will enable the agency to relocate from overcrowded space in a building adjacent to Mission Hospital in Asheville . The new building will include laboratory and meeting space for applied health research projects that focus on developing “best practice” approaches to problems affecting North Carolinians . It would include a public health library, and offices, classrooms and lab space for expanded educational opportunities for health care providers and the public.

“This is an extremely significant breakthrough for health education, wellness and aging in Western North Carolina ,” said Teck Penland, president and chief executive officer of MAHEC. “The opportunity for MAHEC, Western Carolina University and UNCA to work more closely with regional leadership to focus on wellness and aging will yield monumental positive outcomes for the people of Western North Carolina, North Carolina and the nation. The program will ultimately become a national model for wellness and aging.”

The planning and design phase for both projects is expected to take a minimum of one year. Following the appropriation of funds and the awarding of bids, construction of the projects would require at least two years.

The General Assembly also approved $35 million over the next two years for UNCA to build its Center for Health and Wellness Promotion, which will house classrooms, laboratories and research space for students working on degrees in health promotion.

Combining the Western, MAHEC and UNCA projects to create a regional initiative, the N.C. Center for Health and Aging is expected to become a national model for the expansion of health education and applied research in areas of special interest for aging and near-aging people, their families and caregivers. The center is expected to have a significant economic impact on Western North Carolina by promoting new technologies and services that address mobility, communication and other needs of senior citizens.

The joint Western-MAHEC-UNCA project is supported by the Western North Carolina Health Network, composed of 16 WNC hospitals and 16 affiliate members including municipal and county health departments. Hospitals supporting the plan are Angel Medical Center, Franklin; Cherokee Indian Hospital, Cherokee; Community CarePartners, Asheville; Harris Regional Hospital, Sylva; Haywood Regional Medical Center, Clyde; Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, Highlands; Margaret R. Pardee Hospital, Hendersonville; Mission Hospitals, Asheville; Murphy Medical Center, Murphy; Park Ridge Hospital, Fletcher; Rutherford Hospital, Rutherfordton; Spruce Pine Community Hospital, Spruce Pine; St. Luke’s Hospital, Columbus; Swain County Hospital, Bryson City; The McDowell Hospital, Marion; and Transylvania Community Hospital, Brevard.