When young Canadians join the Mounties, one of their first orders of business is to cut up their provincial medical card and join the national police force's special health-care system.
However, a provision in the Harper government's omnibus budget bill would bring RCMP officers back into the Canadian health-care mainstream, with services overseen by the provinces. The legislative change in Bill C-38 heralds a series of other modifications to the health and benefits package offered to Mounties, including sick leave, the employee assistance program and disability leave.
The RCMP argues the changes will save at least $25-million a year in administrative and health-care costs, and will improve on a system that is increasingly "costly and complex."
"Under the current system, regular members are billed as non-provincial residents, which can often double and sometimes triple the cost of their treatment," the national police force stated in an internal memo to its staff.
However, the overhaul is causing anxiety among RCMP rank-and-file, who feel they deserve the best treatment in exchange for putting their lives on the line. In a recent meeting with Commissioner Bob Paulson, the group that represents these Mounties expressed their "grave concerns regarding the potential clawback."
Staff-Sergeant Abe Townsend, national executive for the Staff Relations Representative Program, explained in an interview that the Mounties deserve top-notch care, given their law-and-order responsibilities at postings all over Canada.
"We travel in harm's way to serve the public interest," Staff-Sgt. Townsend said. "The quid pro quo is that if circumstances are unfortunate and we become sick or injured, we will not be left to whither on our own and the Canadian public has our back. It's a fair exchange of trust."
While some of the changes are being accepted, the RCMP is facing a tough battle as it tries to change a cornerstone of the current system, namely an uncapped sick leave system based on medical need.
"In the current fiscal environment, it is very hard for taxpayers to accept that police officers get unlimited sick leave," the internal RCMP memo stated.
The Staff Relations Representative Program, which represents the interests of RCMP officers (who cannot form a union by law), said there are a number of unanswered questions about the proposed modifications.
Staff-Sgt.Townsend insisted that sick leave is not unlimited. He said the system is carefully monitored in order to bring back Mounties on the job, based on their physical and mental abilities.
He said that creating a sick-leave bank would constitute a major shift in the force, with some employees potentially hiding injuries to continue accumulating sick days, for example.
"The big concerns for ours members is the unknown," he said. "Will there be a cash-out provision? Would that encourage me to work while I'm sick? The shift in psychology is important."
The RCMP is aware of the objections among its officers, and is engaged in discussions to determine how to implement thorny matters such as the sick-leave bank.
Chief Superintendent Gilles Moreau defended the thrust of the ongoing changes, saying they will allow the force to concentrate on its core mandate.
"The RCMP is in the policing business," he said. "The health-care business is for health-care professionals."
He added the goal is to improve on current health-care services to Mounties. "The objective is to make sure that when members get sick, we take care of them so that they can come back healthy and more rapidly," he said.
The RCMP is also planning to transfer the force's employee assistance program into the federal government's regular stream, where it is overseen by Health Canada. The organization is pointing out that the Mounties will benefit from the same services as officials at National Defence and Correctional Services, but some rank-and-file Mounties prefer the current system, overseen internally.
"The peer-to-peer program has served us well," Staff-Sgt. Townsend said. "Going to a 1-800 number hasn't been received well at all."
The RCMP is also planning to outsource its disability case management, once again sowing fears that an outside entity will determine when and how Mounties come back to work. The change is fuelling the overarching concern within the Staff Relations Representative Program that medical services will be overseen by for-profit entities, instead of being adapted to the unique needs of RCMP officers.