FRANKLIN COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The sound of voicemails and a silent answering machine are all too familiar for Annette Strong.
For weeks, she has made call after call trying to arrange transportation for her husband Jeffery Strong to get to medical appointments.
"It has stressed me so badly. You can't even imagine. I mean, you're talking about a life or death situation," Annette explained.
The couple lives in Franklin County and Jeffery Strong has dialysis appointments three times a week at a clinic just 12 minutes away in Wake County. He is unable to walk and can't see, which means transportation isn't as easy as getting in the family's car. Jeffery needed a transportation company that was able to provide stretcher or wheelchair transport, go out of the county, and service dialysis centers. Annette said this left them with only two options.
"That was a shock," she said. "That's it for Franklin County?"
For a while, the company HealthFirst Transport was able to handle most of Jeffery's appointments. However, an incident at the Dialysis center and a decrease in staffing led the company to no longer be able to accommodate the family's transportation needs.
So then, the family tried to load Jeffery into their own car. Next, they paid out-of-pocket for a different company. Annette said neither option was feasible in the long run.
"We paid a transport company out of Raleigh to come and do it, but that was like $155. You can't do that three times a week. We simply can't afford that," she said.
Franklin County has helped fund a Raleigh-based transportation company for the family but Annette said that funding is running out and they aren't able to accommodate her husband's Saturday appointments due to decreasing staff.
"We have no access here even as much as Franklin County is growing by leaps and bounds, but there's still nothing at the same time," she said. "I literally feel like he's falling through the cracks."
And it's not just them who have tried. Franklin County health officials told the I-Team they have been actively working to find alternate services. County officials have contacted 30 different transport companies. However, the problem is the Strongs live in Franklin County and need to go to a dialysis center in Wake County and most of the transport companies don't provide service outside of Wake County. Despite the dead ends, a spokesperson for Franklin County said they are continuing to work "every angle."
The issue the Strongs are facing is one echoed across America.
"What we're seeing is over the last four to five years, especially with COVID, the impact of COVID on rural communities is that transportation has been elevated now to one of the top three healthcare concerns that rural communities are facing nationwide," said Alan Morgan, the CEO of the National Rural Health Association.
Morgan said the impact of this is life expectancy rates in rural communities are decreasing as some patients choose to forgo care.
To tackle this, he said the federal government needs to improve the way it reimburses healthcare companies and workers, along with the way these services are funded.
"Further reimbursements of community health workers and expansion of community paramedic programs really are the most viable options going forward for addressing this issue. They're not silver bullets, but those are the two avenues at a federal level which we expect to see continued growth in the coming year," Morgan said.
At the state level, the Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation (FHLI), is working to bring patients and communities together to begin to tackle issues like transportation that were highlighted during the pandemic.
"Part of what we do at the Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation is spending time with communities helping them begin to identify how they are addressing challenges, working toward solutions, and then helping them create alignment and then leverage the access that we have so that they can really begin to think about whole person health and not just really about the one issue of just transportation," explained David Reese, the president and CEO of FHLI.
One of FHLI's programs, NCCARE360, is the first statewide network that seeks to connect individuals to services, providers, and resources in their community.
"We assume that everyone knows every resource that is available back within their community and that is just not the case and this is part of North Carolina coming back together," Reese said.
He said this platform allows North Carolinians to think differently about how they connect and become healthier.
Reese said he is optimistic that solutions will be forged in North Carolina communities over time.
"This is it's not a 60-yard dash. This is the marathon. This is how we rebuild after COVID but this is also about how we create the pathway for healthier North Carolinians," Reese said.
However, time is pressing for the Strongs. They still don't have a permanent solution to Jeffery's tri-weekly dialysis appointments. They are hoping to figure out a way to fund their own wheelchair-accessible van or find a reliable and affordable transport company to service their unique needs.
Annette said she is terrified that if they don't find a solution her 47-year-old husband is going to end up having to stay in a hospital or nursing home.
"I should not be in a situation," Annette said.
Some resources to help connect to care options include: