The University of South Carolina voted to expand its medical school program in Greenville, a move advocates say will benefit health care delivery across the state, including in rural areas and in addressing South Carolina's long-standing physician shortage.

As early as 2012, approximately 40 students a year will be spending all four years of their medical training at the school's campus, part of the Greenville Hospital System.

In a conference call with The Post and Courier on Friday, USC President Harris Pastides praised the expansion as a natural evolution of a flagship university. He also stressed a goal of keeping more medical school graduates at home to address high-risk low-physician regions of the state, including the Interstate 95 corridor.

"We're looking to recruit, if I may be highly specific, a highly diverse group of students highly committed to primary care," he said.

Approval came during separate votes by the USC Board of Trustees and the Greenville Hospital System Board.

Medical University of South Carolina President Ray Greenberg was traveling Friday and could not be reached. But earlier in the week, he questioned whether the expansion is needed and if it actually could produce the type of the doctors the state needs.

Greenberg further noted there are a limited number of residency slots available in the country, pointing out that the correlation of students and slots "go hand-in-hand."

The Greenville Hospital System's University Medical Center has been an Upstate campus of the USC's School of Medicine since 1991. About 50 to 60 third- and fourth-year medical students attend campus there now, while about 300 are on the main campus in Columbia.

The expansion would allow first- and second-year students to attend in Greenville as well, with a goal of eventually increasing enrollment to about 400 students.

Pastides said the expansion will not cost the state more funding because it will be paid for by tuition and money from the Greenville Hospital System. A 10-year funding model has been done that shows the effort is sustainable without state funding, Pastides said.

Some of the issues still to be worked out include curriculum development, hiring faculty and student service staff, and school deans.

USC announced the vote on its website Friday and included a reference to an August article in The Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association that said the state's "capacity for educating physicians has not kept pace with the state's needs." The article was authored by former USC President Andrew Sorensen and listed the state at 43rd in primary-care physicians per 100,000 residents.

One state lawmaker was quick to criticize the expansion. Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who writes the first draft of the higher education budget for the Legislature, said he does not think USC's decision is the right one for the state.

"We already have two med schools in South Carolina, and to establish a third location, in my view, is not wise," Limehouse said. "The University of South Carolina is operating as if they just won the Powerball, because medical universities are very expensive. They'll be coming to us (to ask for money) before it's all over with," he predicted.

The expanded program must be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), USC said on its website.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.