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Politics Free Viagra, transgender surgery on chopping block at National Defence

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There could soon be less spring in the step of those at National Defence as the department considers halting the decade-long practice of distributing free Viagra to the troops.

Also under consideration is the cancellation of taxpayer-funded transgender medical procedures for members of the military.

Defence sources say both programs – worth over $2-million a year – have been offered up for elimination by the department twice in the last two years as part of the strategic review process and the departmental spending review.

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The suggestions were rejected once, but are now back under consideration as part of the $1.5-billion in defence cuts mandated over three years as part of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's March 29 budget, officials said.

A senior defence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said decisions on the future of both programs will be made after the budget is formally adopted later this spring.

Asked whether either health initiative faced elimination, National Defence responded with a terse statement saying the military's health services branch "is focusing on its core mandate" of providing high-quality care.

The statement noted that the only cuts as part of the strategic review involved massage therapy and a health information line, but carefully left the door open to further reductions.

"Once changes to the Military Healthcare System are known, they will be communicated to all (Canadian Forces) personnel," said the written response.

Within government, officials have expressed concern for years about the rising cost of the wildly popular Viagra program, which saw members limited to six of the little blue pills a month – at a cost of between $15 and $22 per pill.

The drug is used to treat erectile dysfunction in men.

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When introduced in 2000, the government justified supplying the prescription wonder drug to troops as a health policy meant to ensure all soldiers were mentally fit and ready for the battlefield.

While serving members of the military might be cut off, ex-soldiers would not be not be affected, says a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, which in the past has spent more than $1.5-million a year on its program.

"Veterans Affairs Canada continues to cover Viagra for eligible veterans," Janice Summerby said in an email statement.

"Costs of prescription drugs (approved by Health Canada), including Viagra, are reimbursed to address a health need as prescribed by a health professional."

Getting the federal government to cover the cost was the result of years of lobbying by the War Amps of Canada in the late 1990s.

Both the U.S. and Australia have similar programs of passing out free pills to their soldiers.

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A University of Ottawa law professor said an economic case could be made for discontinuing Viagra, even though it's pocket change in comparison to the multibillion-dollar weapons systems the department is reviewing.

But transgender surgeries is another matter entirely, said Errol Mendes, a constitutional law expert.

"It shows the Canadian military is more open and progressive, especially when compared to what you see south of the border," he said. "This cut could be ideological and playing to (the Conservative) base."

The policy of helping cover some of the cost of transgender medical procedures dates back to 1998, but has its roots in the Canadian military's decision to allow gay and lesbian members to serve openly without fear of reprisal.

National Defence, as recently as 18 month ago, reportedly updated its dress policy to allow soldiers to wear the uniform of their "target gender," a move that was hailed as respectful and progressive.

Fear of legal repercussions, in the form of human-rights complaint or even a Charter of Rights challenge, has apparently given federal officials pause about the elimination of the surgeries, said the defence sources.

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The Forces was caught in a decade-long fight with a transgendered Quebec lawyer who claimed she was discriminated against when the military refused in 1999 to enlist her.

A federal human rights tribunal rejected the complaint in 2009.

Mendes said the rights of the transgendered have not been explicitly dealt with by the Supreme Court and challenging the elimination of the program would be tricky.

The court could deem them a vulnerable group, but proving a disadvantage may be more difficult, he added.

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