Until recently, Mike Smith, 64, of Long Beach, Calif., worked 11 hours a day, Monday through Friday and then half a day on Saturday. He was a district manager for a national auto parts chain.
He dreamed of retiring early, but it wasn't an option for him because he and his wife relied on the health insurance tied to his job.
"At our age, with some pre-existing 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 changed that. Smith retired in January. So did his wife, Laura, also 64.
The couple now has a private health insurance policy bought through Covered California, the state's insurance marketplace. It costs $200 a month.
The coverage helped the Smiths make a major lifestyle change. Just after noon on a recent weekday, Mike is at their Long Beach home, cooking lunch.
"We've got organic shallots, organic Brussels sprouts and organic apple cider vinegar," he says, stirring the ingredients with a wooden spoon. "I love the smell of the shallots, don't you?"
Smith says he's now also able to take care of his elderly in-laws and his 2-year-old grandchild. He gets to practice his guitar more often, too.
A recent study by Georgetown University and the Urban Institute predicts the ACA will enable up to 1.5 million Americans to leave their jobs and become self-employed, start new businesses or retire early. It's a finding that runs counter to forecasts by critics of the federal health law, who contend it will cost the nation jobs and cripple America's small-business economy.
It will take years to know how the health law will change the work landscape in a broad sense, but already the law has changed life for Rebecca Murray.
Last year, Murray says, her husband — a freelance worker in the information technology field — was diagnosed with chronic spinal arthritis. He needed good health insurance, which he received through Murray's job as a social worker in Chicago for a dialysis company. But Murray didn't like her job.
Murray and her husband are both 31, with a 20-month-old daughter and a second child on the way. Before the Affordable Care Act, they couldn't get insurance on the individual market because of his pre-existing condition.
But under the federal health law, they now qualify for a subsidized policy that will cost $535 a month for the whole family. It's not cheap, she says, but the coverage allowed her to quit her job and launch an online business to help other young women 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," Murray says of her new venture. "But this really is allowing me to finally step into what I feel is truly satisfying for the soul." Just a year ago, she adds, "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."
This story is part of a partnership between NPR, KPCC and Kaiser Health News.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
More than 8 million people signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. There's been a lot of debate about whether the law will cost the economy jobs. But what's clear is that some people do have the ability now to leave jobs that they've been keeping just for health coverage.
From member station KPCC, Stephanie O'Neill reports.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: It's mid-day in Long Beach, Calif., and Mike Smith is standing over his kitchen stove preparing bright-green brussel sprouts and caramelized shalets, straight from the pages of "Bon Appetit."
MIKE SMITH: Organic shalets, organic brussel sprouts and organic apple cider vinegar. I love the smell of the shalets, don't you?
O'NEILL: The sweet scent of this gourmet veggie dish lingers as Smith and his wife, Laura, share their leisurely lunch with a visitor. Afterwards, Smith strums a folk tune on his acoustic guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
O'NEILL: Until recently, Smith, now 64, 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. That left him little time to practice guitar, to experiment in the kitchen, or to help take care of elderly in-laws. But early retirement, while certainly appealing, wasn't a viable option as both he and his wife relied heavily on his job-provided health insurance.
SMITH: At our age and both with some pre-existing medical conditions, it would have been very costly to buy insurance on the open market. I think about $3,000 a month is what it would have cost us.
O'NEILL: But the Affordable Care Act changed all that. The Smiths are now enrolled in a private, subsidized health insurance policy that costs them only $200 a month. That's because the ACA bars insurance companies from either denying coverage or charging higher rates to folks with pre-existing conditions.
And that policy shift has also rocked Rebecca Murray's world.
REBECCA MURRAY: My husband and I are both 31 years old. We have a 20-month-old daughter, and we found out about three weeks ago that we're expecting our second child.
O'NEILL: The Chicago resident says her husband, a freelance IT worker, was diagnosed with chronic spinal arthritis. He needed good health insurance, and he got it through Murray's job as a social worker for a dialysis corporation. But she was unhappy at her job because she felt she had to compromise her values and her ethics to work there.
I realized that life can't keep going on this way. I started thinking about, you know, how can the Affordable Care Act help?
Murray says until Obamacare took effect, she and her husband couldn't get insurance on the open market because of his illness. But under the federal health law, they now qualify for a subsidized policy that costs a little more than $500 a month for the whole family. And that allowed Murray to quit her job and launch an online business to help young women like her take care of sick loved ones.
MURRAY: This really is allowing me to finally, like, step into what I feel is truly satisfying for the soul. This time last year, I was convinced I would be a renal social worker for the next 30-something years and, you know, I'll just raise my kids and hope that they can live out their dreams, instead.
One recent study by Georgetown University and the Urban Institute predicts the Affordable Care Act will help up to a million and a half Americans - like Murray and Smith - leave unfulfilling jobs and become self-employed or start new businesses.
O'NEILL: For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.
SIEGEL: And that story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.