Subscribe for 17¢ / day

HELENA - Lawmakers here are taking up collections to pay the medical bills of one of their own employees who broke her arm over the weekend. She doesn't qualify for state health insurance and doesn't make enough to buy coverage on the open market.

Jenn Phalen of Kalispell, an aide to Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren of Havre, fell down a flight of stairs in her home last weekend. She broke her arm, took the ambulance to the hospital and has likely racked up about $4,000 in medical bills so far, Bergren said.

"She broke her left arm, and I feel like I lost my right arm," Bergren said, adding that she's lucky she wasn't hurt worse.

Bergren pitched in the first $50 and challenged all 100 lawmakers from the speaker's chair Wednesday to contribute.

Phalen, Bergren said, is like "19 percent of the population of Montana" and has no health insurance.

She moved to Helena to work the 2009 Legislature. Because she is not expected to work for the state for a full six months, she does not qualify for the same health insurance benefits lawmakers and other state employees do.

State employees, including lawmakers, generally qualify for benefits their first day on the job. However, there is a provision for temporary employees who are not expected to work six months. Those employees get no benefits.

Bergren learned of Phalen's accident shortly after she fell. He decided to wait until Wednesday to start passing the hat because Wednesday was payday and lawmakers then all have pockets of "sass money."

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, is in charge of collecting the money. She said that about two hours after Bergren's challenge went out, she had collected $1,700.

That's almost enough to pay Phalen's $2,000 ambulance bill.

"Both Democrats and Republicans have been very generous," she said. "People have written some pretty significant checks. It's very touching."

Sands said she expects more donations to come in; many people simply didn't have their checkbooks handy Wednesday afternoon.

Phalen said she looked into buying insurance on her own after she got her legislative job. The cheapest she found was about $300 a month. She had been unemployed for more than a month before Bergren hired her and said she simply couldn't afford that and dig herself out of the hole she wound up in while she was unemployed.

Her parents also have offered to help out. Phalen said she had no idea Bergren intended to announce her plight before the entire House.

"I was mortified," she said, adding that Bergren and other lawmakers have been worried about her and brought her food and movies when she was off work. "They've very much come together," she said.