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Navy SEAL "Failed follow up at Tucson VA"

Posted at 10:19 PM, Jul 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-08 19:10:53-04

Another failed mission. That's what a former Navy SEAL is calling the follow up care he's receiving from the Tucson VA.

KGUN9 reported in early May that Craig "Sawman" Sawyer has been battling a painful lung condition since 1999 and it's worsening each year.

And when the VA instructed him to go to a private hospital for an emergency, he was stuck with a huge medical bill that put him in debt.

Sawyer's story went viral and even reached the Central VA office in Washington, D.C. You'd think his problems would be over -- but that's far from the case.

Sawyer was a Marine sniper and a member of the elite Navy SEAL -- Team Six. Craig Sawman Sawyer is a 52-year-old highly decorated veteran who has been to Hell and back.  

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The wars have taken a toll on him -- his body badly beaten from helicopters crashes, parachute jumps and rock climbing falls. "You know, almost gotten shot in half and blown up half a dozen times. You get beat up." 

He's been exposed to toxins from oil rig fires as this team captured prisoners off burning ships in the Gulf War and asbestos-covered building in the Balkans. "They are dirty filthy places. They burn everything. It's hazardous conditions in the Third World countries."

Sawyer has been battling a painful lung condition and chronic cough for more than two decades. Tucson VA doctors diagnosed asthma -- gave him a lot of medication -- but his condition is getting worse.

His wife, Tressa, has pleaded for years for a lung biopsy -- the procedure denied by doctors at the Tucson VA. She told KGUN9, "Can you imagine a doctor telling you that you're an exaggerator and I'm not going to give you what you want?"

After Sawyer's story aired back in May, it quickly got the attention of the Tucson VA. The lung testing the Sawyers requested finally got approved.

But the Sawyers didn't have the utmost confidence in the VA. "We've been forced to have civilian doctors and check in parallel. And that's how we're finding out what's wrong," said Craig Sawyer.

RELATED: Tucson VA: Navy Seal denied care and now in debt

After being poked, prodded and x-rayed by VA and civilian doctors - it was the civilian physicians who discovered the problem. Tressa said, "They came back with "You don't have asthma. You have something in your lungs. You don't have asthma."

They discovered Sawyer had -- Valley Fever -- a sometimes deadly respiratory disease that includes symptoms of cough and chest pain. So the VA had misdiagnosed me and had given me inhalers for asthma for 17 years," said Craig Sawyer.

Cavazos: "So that's why the medication wasn't working." 
Tressa: "That's why the meds were not working."

He's now on anti-fungal medication to beat down the Valley Fever symptoms, but the doctor told him -- the disease over the past 17 years may have spread to other parts of his body. Sawyer says his abdomen has been swelling and is painful. 

RELATED: Tucson VA whistleblowers skeptical of fed investigation

Sawyer experienced one of the symptoms of Valley Fever -- chest pains -- about two years ago. The Tucson VA sent him to the nearest emergency room at a private hospital, but never paid the bill leaving the Sawyers in deep debt.

Soon after Sawyer's story went viral in early May, it got the attention of Central VA in Washington, DC and reached Secretary Robert McDonald's office. Tressa Sawyer said, "They called regarding the outstanding bills. Didn't call about anything else. I did get immediate attention. They had somebody call me right away, which then put some heat on for the Tucson VA to pay it."

The Sawyers say both Central and Tucson VA promised to take care of the bills -- totaling $14,000 -- within a few weeks. 

Cavazos: "Has the VA paid your bill?"
Craig: "No, to this day the VA still has not paid."

Sawyer's viral story also got the attention of Veteran's Advocacy Services - a non-profit that works with the VA to help veterans across the country. The organization's president, Peggy Matthews, called the Sawyers to offer her help.

Matthews explained why the VA didn't pay the ER bill in the first place even though the VA instructed Sawyer to go the nearest emergency room. "In the veterans mind, it's a contract with the VA that go get health care and we'll take care of it. But that's not true., The VA has no intentions of paying that bill -- unless the veteran is 100 percent service connected as is going to the emergency room for an injury he's service connected for but he needs prior written approval from the VA saying they will pay for it."

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Sawyer is not 100 percent service connected. He says no one explained the rules to him. Matthews even contacted Central VA to help push for payment "to clean it all up. And that's been several weeks and it still hasn't been paid," said Craig Sawyer.

Matthews says the VA isn't handling claims the same way across the nation -- excellent in some regions -- poor in others. "Nobody is on the same page. Workers are interpreting laws differently I've found. They're just handling claims differently."

Cavazos: "So it's inconsistent."
Matthews: "Very inconsistent."

So this former Navy Seal -- though he finally knows through civilian doctors what's made him sick -- is still stuck with a hefty medical bill. "In fact, we have another collection letter that our credit it further suffering," said Tressa Sawyer.

The Sawyers say it's just more broken promises by the government. "Why not have it function well and take care of these guys who have given everything for their country.>

The Commission on Care -- charged to examine the VA -- submitted a 300-page report to President Obama. It found the VA has many profound deficiencies that require urgent reform, but there's already controversy on what those changes should be.