OTTAWA - The former head of the Canadian Forces health group had to fight tooth and nail last spring to prevent the service from being carved up by "profound" cuts in the Harper government's deficit reduction drive, newly released documents show.
A series of internal emails, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws, show Commodore Hans Jung was so alarmed by the planned reductions that he went around his immediate superior and appealed directly to the vice chief of defence staff to reconsider eliminating a series of jobs and programs.
"Sir, when we spoke previously, you asked that I communicate to you directly if I felt that (Deficit Reduction Action Plan) cuts would have a profound impact on the military care health care system," Jung wrote in an April 4, 2012 note to Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, who is in day-to-day charge of the military budget.
"I just received the (work force adjustment) list for (Canadian Forces Health Services). It includes the full list of our 10 per cent (budget reduction) submission. Before we take action as per direction, I want to be sure that you ... fully understand the implications, as with all of the submissions that you had to deal with, the details may have been less than visible."
Over 10 days later, Jung requested an "urgent" meeting with Donaldson to "describe fully the implications and provide details of what I believe we can deliver in terms of cuts."
On the chopping block were mental health research jobs, dental hygenists, researchers who conduct quality assurance and long-term military health planning, a program that accredits military doctors, as well as the popular program that sees Forces physicians liaise and supports civilian hospitals.
They were described as "key strategic enablers" whose loss would "impact care delivery and system performance measure."
The cuts have apparently been put on hold and officials are looking elsewhere within the health system for "efficiencies."
Jung retired shortly after the budget battle.
A spokeswoman for National Defence insisted in an email Tuesday that no health care providers would be impacted, pointing to the government's recent injection of $11.4 million into the mental health system to augment preventative care.
"The impact (of) the 2012 federal budget and the associated Deficit Reduction Action Plan on the military health care system is still under consideration, as Canadian Forces Health Services (CFHS) is expected to contribute to defence department targets," wrote Capt. Joanna Labonte.
"Once changes to the military health care system are known, they will be communicated to all CF personnel. The CFHS remains committed to ensuring the operational readiness of the CF by providing the highest quality care possible to members, wherever they serve."
New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris was dumbfounded by the way the planned cuts were handled and said military health service, which has not grown at the same rate as combat arms, should be exempt from any reductions.
"Given the concern about the health and welfare of soldiers, particularly the military's ability to deal with the problems they're encountering, (health services) should be left out of cuts," Harris said.
And if National Defence is struggling with something as essential as health care, Harris said he wondered what must be going across the Forces as it confronts a combined budget wallop of $2.5 billion by 2014-15.
In being ordered to make cuts, the health section was told not to touch clinical services; in keeping with Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie's report about transforming the Canadian military, it was told to ensure the reductions were Ottawa-centric.
The health branch was given four days last winter to decide what to cut, but Jung's email messages show it was an order and the areas under scrutiny had been deemed worthy of keeping during the government's earlier strategic review process.
"We were directed to provide our 'allotment' of cuts (censored)," Jung wrote to Donaldson on April 16, 2012. "We were able to prove that what we were providing was efficient and effective. For (Deficit Reduction Action Plan), we were directed to make submissions with repeated assurances that the impact statements would be carefully reviewed.
"In the end, I had no choice but put in these items to meet my 'allotment.'"
Harris said Leslie's report provided a clear road map on where to cut, but aside from the amalgamation of three headquarters units, he's seen little evidence that report is being followed.
Instead, the Conservatives have chosen to take a bottom line approach and force a 10 per cent cut across the board, he added.
"If you're doing 10 per cent across the board, you might get 10 per cent, but maybe you're not finding the real source of savings," he said.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version identified NDP MP Jack Harris as health critic.