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Medical professionals help Merci Clinic give free health care to uninsured

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NEW BERN, N.C. -

Health care is expensive these days, especially if you have no coverage.

In Craven County thousands of people don't have health insurance, but they still get some of the care they need, thanks to a mostly volunteer medical clinic.

54-year-old Darlene Wright comes to the Merci Clinic in New Bern several times a year. Without this clinic, she says she wouldn't be able to get any health care.

"I cannot afford to go anywhere else... because I don't have any income and I've not got a job," said Wright.

Wright used to work as a cashier three years ago, but she says she had to quit because of her arthritis, scoliosis, degenerative joint disease, COPD, and other medical problems.

"I can't walk and I can't bend, I can't stoop, I can't do things that I normally could have done at a younger life," said Wright.

Wright is one of about 6,400 patients without medical or dental insurance who gets free health care at the Merci Clinic. The nonprofit serves low-income adults in Craven, Pamlico, and Jones counties.

Priscilla Miller, the executive director, says the clinic depends on three to four hundred volunteers to keep itself running.

"Every other position you see is a volunteer. We have volunteer pharmacists, volunteer pharmacy techs, volunteer nurses, volunteer translators, doctors, dentists, what am I forgetting, lab," said Miller.

Many of these volunteers are retired health care professionals, like Ginger Parnell. Parnell was a registered nurse at CarolinaEast Medical Center for 25 years.

"Although I enjoy being retired, but I would not want to not do this," said Parnell.

Parnell says being a nurse is part of her identity. That's what motivated her to volunteer.

"I miss being part of something big and this is really big. I mean, it's little, but it's very big. They do a big job here," said Parnell.

The clinic even has volunteer specialists, including a part-time eye doctor, psychologist, and gynecologist. It also holds a diabetes education program.

"We're really lucky. We get all the pharmaceuticals are from companies. Not one patient pays for the medicine they get here, and they're on some pretty high dollar medicines," said Miller.

Giving free health care to thousands of patients is expensive. Miller says taking care of one patient costs $290 a year.

She says the clinic primarily depends on grants and donations. She says it also gets $25,000 from Craven County every year.

"I would like to see everybody have insurance and not have to get what they can get," said Parnell.

Parnell says the Affordable Care Act gives her hope that this could happen. Until it does, she'll continue spending her retirement at the Merci Clinic.

"I just think they're a great bunch of people. I just love ‘em. They treat you right," said Wright.

Parnell says the best part of volunteering: the gratitude of her patients.

Miller says demand for services is so high the clinic has to turn patients away every day. She says the clinic tries to help those patients find other places to get health care.

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