HELENA - They're collecting money in the Montana Legislature to help an injured House aide who lacks health insurance, a bind that affects almost 20 percent of Montanans and is among the issues on lawmakers' agenda.
When they convened on Wednesday, members of the House of Representatives saw Speaker Bob Bergren hold up a crisp $50 bill as he asked them to help his assistant cover medical expenses incurred after she fell and broke her arm.
"It's a classic example of a young woman working full-time, trying to make ends meet, but she can't afford insurance," Bergren said later in a telephone interview.
Jenn Phalen, who fell down a staircase in her Helena home on Sunday, does not qualify for state employee insurance because she is on the state payroll only for the legislative session. It began Jan. 5 and runs for up to 90 days. Phalen is paid an hourly $21.20 as assistant to Bergren, a Democrat who operates a small business in Havre.
Bergren said Wednesday was legislators' payday, so in asking for money, he knew they had some.
Legislators are paid $82.64 a day, and receive $103.69 a day for expenses. They are in a different personnel category than legislative staff, and therefore have the option of getting state-subsidized insurance.
Bergren said he was unsure how much his fundraising appeal brought, but he had heard that contributors gave about $1,700.
Phalen missed work Monday and Tuesday but was on the job Wednesday, Bergren said. As a person employed only for the legislative session, she's not just excluded from insurance. She doesn't qualify for sick leave, either, said Randy Morris, administrator of the state Personnel Division.
Bills before the Legislature include measures to strengthen children's health insurance; to encourage small-business participation in an insurance pool; and to treat employees of nonprofit hospitals as city or county workers, for insurance purposes. There also is a measure to help school districts make employer contributions for group insurance.
An estimated 173,000 Montanans are without insurance, according to the office of the state insurance commissioner. The Census Bureau estimated the state's population at 944,632 in 2006.