Obamacare: Enrollees emboldened to leave jobs, start businesses

Mike and Laura Smith.
Mike and Laura Smith.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
Mike and Laura Smith.
Mike Smith at home in Long Beach.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
Mike and Laura Smith.
Rebecca Murray (right) with her husband Tim Williams and their daughter Margaret (Mugs) Williams.
Barbara Goering

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It’s just after noon on a recent weekday and Mike Smith, 64, of Long Beach is standing over his stove, gently mixing together a sizzling dish of bright green brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots.

"Even people who don't like brussels sprouts love this dish," he says of the recipe he culled from the pages of Bon Appétit Magazine many years ago. 

“We’ve got organic shallots, organic brussels sprouts and organic apple cider vinegar," Smith says as he stirs the ingredients with a wood spoon. "I love the smell of the shallots, don’t you?" 

RELATED: Obamacare: Everything you need to know about enrolling in California

Until recently, Smith had little time to to experiment in the kitchen, to practice guitar or to visit his elderly in-laws or his two-year-old grandchild.  

Instead, he worked 11 hours a day, Monday through Friday and then half a day on Saturday, as a district manager for a national auto parts chain.  Early retirement, while certainly appealing, wasn't a viable option, as both he and his wife relied heavily on his job-provided health insurance.

"At our age ,with some preexisting medical conditions, it would have been very costly to buy insurance on the open market...about $3,000 a month," he says.

But the Affordable Care Act (ACA) changed all that.  Smith retired early, as did his wife, Laura, also 64. 

The couple is now enrolled in a private health insurance policy that costs them only $200 a month, thanks, in part, to the ACA. 

But it’s not just aspiring early retirees who are benefiting from the federal law. 

"We used to see people who had preexisting conditions or high health care needs unable to leave a job they didn’t like and go start their own small business," says Dylan Roby, director of health economics and evaluation research at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "Because they were afraid if they tried to buy insurance on their own, an insurance company would reject them. And now that can’t happen."

That’s because Obamacare now bars insurance companies from either denying coverage or charging higher rates to people with preexisting conditions.

It's a policy shift  that enabled Rebecca Murray to make a different sort of life change. 

Last year, the Chicago resident says, her husband — a freelance IT worker — was diagnosed with chronic spinal arthritis.  He needed good health insurance, which he received through Murray’s job as a social worker for a dialysis corporation.  But Murray says she despised her job because it forced her to compromise her values and ethics.

Couldn't get insurance before

Murray says until the ACA took effect, she and her husband — they are both 31, with a 20-month-old daughter and a second child on the way — couldn’t get insurance on the open market because of his preexisting condition.

But under the federal health law, they now qualify for a subsidized policy that will cost $535 a month for the whole family. Not inexpensive by any means, she says, but it does allow her to quit her job and launch an online business to help young women, like her, take care of sick loved ones.

“It's thrilling, it's exciting, it's kind of like taking a leap into the unknown, and I know it's a big risk," she says of her new venture. "But this really is allowing me to finally step into what I feel is truly satisfying for the soul," she says, adding that just a year ago, "I was convinced I would be a renal social worker for the next 30-something years and...just raise my kids and hope they could live out their dreams instead."

UCLA’s Dylan Roby says that's a familiar story as until this year,  it’s been too hard for many American's to embrace their entrepreneurial dreams.

"For a country that values this idea of innovation and small business we actually fall far behind lots of European countries in terms of our ability to let people do their own thing," he says. 

Roby points to a recent study by Georgetown University and the Urban Institute that predicts the ACA will enable up to 1.5 million Americans to leave unfulfilling jobs and become self-employed or start new businesses. It's a finding that runs counter to claims by ACA critics, who contend the federal health law will cost the nation jobs and cripple America’s small business economy.

Roby goes on to predict the health law will do more than just dissolve such "job lock" for unhappy workers. He believes it may also free those Americans who've stayed in stagnant marriages solely as a way to maintain insurance coverage.

"So it provides more options to people who would be maybe delaying a order to keep their health insurance coverage," he says. 

And for others, such as Mike and Laura Smith, who aren't yet old enough to qualify for Medicare, the ACA provides a potential pathway to early retirement and a chance to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.