Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is leasing its former office space in Durham to Duke University, which plans to use it as part of an expanded physician assistant program.

The Duke Endowment is also helping with the effort, pledging $475,000 in support over three years. The funding will help Duke’s Ph.D. program in physical therapy as well.

The deal involves a two-story brick structure at 800 S. Duke St. that dates to the early 1960s and has been vacant since the fall of 2006. Following renovations to the 32,000-square-foot building, the physician assistant program will relocate in January 2009 as the 15-year lease begins, Blue Cross said

BCBSNC and Duke are launching the effort in an attempt to improve access to health care and expand primary care services.

“The physician assistant profession was created at Duke 40 years ago to respond to a societal need for access to care,” said Justine Strand, program director. “The impending physician shortage, increasing burden of chronic disease and the graying of America make the need for PAs greater than ever. This new facility will allow us to graduate more PAs to meet that need.”

A Duke spokesperson said that “no specific number” has been set for the PA expansion. However, there is demand for the program to grow. “Yes, the applicant pool is robust,” the spokesperson said, “and increases every year.”

The PA program, which runs two years, enrolls 56 students per class. According to Duke, 40 percent of the program’s graduates remain in North Carolina to work.

According to a North Carolina Institute of Medicine report issued last year, there were 18.9 physicians per 10,000 residents in North Carolina in 2005. That ratio is forecast to decrease by 21 percent by 2030, the university said in a statement.

According to the federal government, PAs practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive health-care services, as delegated by a physician.

“As a company that’s been around for 75 years, we believe strongly in our responsibility and our commitment to helping the communities in which we work and live,” said Bob Greczyn, BCBSNC’s chief executive officer. “Our collaboration with Duke will help to increase access to primary care services and improve the health and wellness of North Carolinians. That’s a combination of resources that we all benefit from and one that has to be a priority for our state.”

The office space has been vacant since the fall of 2006. Duke’s PA program currently does not have its own dedicated space.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Strand said. “The new facility will give us space with our own identity and signature, something we’ve never had in our history. We’re deeply appreciative to Blue Cross for its vision and leadership for the role of primary care in North Carolina.”