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North Carolina Free Health Clinics In Flux

Warren County Free Clinic Sign
Leoneda Inge

North Carolina has one of the best networks of free clinics in the country.  Support from funders like the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation has helped take care of some of the state’s neediest patients; those who don’t qualify for Medicare of Medicaid.  Warren County – northeast of Raleigh – is home to one of the busiest free clinics in North Carolina.  But funding cuts have resulted in less service at a crucial time in the nation’s health care fight.

There are some 10,000 uninsured residents in Warren and Vance Counties, and the Warren County Free Clinic has served about half of them.  The problem is this clinic in Warrenton used to be open five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays.  Now, it’s only open two and a half days a week.

“I have high blood pressure, I have acid reflux," said Teretha Neal during a recent visit.

Neal travels from Vance County for regular appointments.  Neal lost her job four years ago, and now spends most of her days caring for her sick husband.  She’s 44.  Her blood pressure is high today.

“Now, it’s kind of up because I’ve been frustrated.  And I think I’m taking on a lot, but I leave it in God’s hands, but I appreciate everything these doctors and nurses and assistants give to me around here. Like I said, it’s a blessing and can’t nobody else do no better than they can," said Neal.

Neal can’t go home until LaTicia Tharrington says so.  Tharrington is what some call a physician extender, a nurse practitioner who provides medical care.  And in the Warren County Free Clinic, Tharrington looks like a doctor, acts like a doctor and is respected like a doctor.  Here she is with another patient:

“Your blood pressure has improved, it’s down about, I’d say five points, okay, with the addition of the Spironolactone. But it’s still not at goal, I have to get you below 130," said Tharrington.

Tharrington commutes from Durham to work at this clinic.  She says she’s privileged to serve here.

“I wouldn’t drive almost three hours a day round trip if I didn’t believe in the patients, the mission, the community and I believe there is a greater need.  I could easily say this is too much for me I am very tired.  But the picture and the need is bigger than me," said Tharrington.

The clinic staff is like family and like a lot of families, you stick together when times get tough.  And times are tough now.  Cosmos George is a retired doctor living in Warren County.  He sits on the Warren County Free Clinic Board. 

“We have seen a gradual decrease in the amount of funding that we get.  And currently those are no longer available.  The state funding is no longer available, a large source of our volunteer physicians are no longer available," said George.

The state off free clinics has been in flux for the past two years.   Jason Baisden is Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics.  He says some funding streams have dried up at the same time the federal Affordable Care Act promised an expansion of Medicaid. 

“Free clinics are trying to figure out where they are going to remain and what they’re going to look like in light of all of that," said Baisden.

Baisden says some free clinics are preparing to become a hybrid clinic model where they remain a free clinic, 501 C3 organization, and create a second non-profit that would serve Medicaid patients.

But in North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory and the state’s Republican led legislature decided to turn down federal funding to expand Medicaid.  Adam Searing says that will leave a half million people without health care. 

Searing heads the Health Access Coalition at the North Carolina Justice Center.  He wants rural communities, clinics and hospitals to fight the state for the federal money it turned down.  Because he says no matter how many grants clinics get elsewhere, they will never be enough. 

“It is a noble and valiant effort on the part of all the safety net organizations to address enormous, moral, inequity in our society of people who desperately need health care," said Searing. 

Searing says reports show even if you combine all the work and resources of safety net health groups in the state, you’re still only meeting 25% of the need.

"It’s like putting ten fingers in a dike, it’s crumbling around you it is not enough to address the needs in these counties," said Searing.

Mary Somerville is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Warren County Free Clinic.  She’s showing me all the thousands of patient folders that have now been digitized.  And the room that used to serve as a lab – but not anymore because of funding.

“They say you don’t miss your water until you well runs dry and I think they see now there was a chance that well was actually drying up.  And when people come in now and make donations, they say they can’t see this place close down," said Somerville.

The Warren County Free Clinic recently held its first radio-thon – public radio style.  There was even a spaghetti dinner at a local church.  Somerville says every little bit counts. That’s why she keeps a box at the front desk for donations. 

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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