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For Some, Affordable Care Act Provides Key to 'Job Lock'

Patty Wight
Editorial virtual assistant Nancy MacDonald answers calls at her home office.

For decades, the best way to get good health insurance in the U.S. has been through the workplace. But with the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace, health insurance doesn't have to be tied to a job anymore. It's allowing some people to escape so-called "job lock" - saying with a job purely for the health benefits. And while critics of the ACA worry that the law will encourage companies to cut staff and hours to avoid insurance mandates, some Maine workers say new insurance options have freed them to pursue their career ambitions.

Answering the phone in her home office is Nancy MacDonald's dream. MacDonald is a virtual assistant for authors. You name it, she'll help with research, editing, proof-reading and other forms of artistic guidance.

But it's a job MacDonald says that she can afford to do only part time. "I have two titles: virtual assistant for authors by day, and barista by night," she says.

MacDonald also works 20 hours a week at Starbucks. She took the job three years ago, soon after she started her freelance author work. Freelancing was costing her when it came to insurance - $500 a month for catastrophic coverage.

Then, MacDonald heard that Starbucks offered health benefits to part-time employees. Before she knew it, MacDonald was whipping up frappucinos - and getting much better health insurance. In fact, the premiums were half of what she was paying before, to cover herself and her three kids.

"It seemed like a great solution at the time," she says. Surprisingly, says MacDonald, she enjoys working at Starbucks. "The problem came when I had more opportunities to work - more author clients were coming to me word-of-mouth and wanting my services," she says.

To spend more time on her primary career, MacDonald would need to let go of her Starbucks job. But she needed those insurance benefits. MacDonald was experiencing something called "job lock."

But new insurance options on the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace are the tipping point for some workers to leave existing jobs for more entrepreneurial opportunities.

"My name is Joe Skalecki. I'm an independent consultant." Joe Skalecki worked in the corporate financial services world for more than 20 years. He held on to a recent, unsatisfying job for the insurance benefits. But when he saw the online marketplace on the horizon, he decided to open his own business, Accipiter Insurance Agency.

Skalecki says the certainty the marketplace provides, and the subsidies, are a huge help.

"I look at it as almost seed capital that is being provided to me so that I'm not burdened with a huge health care premium every month at the moment," Skalecki says. "And that means that the money that would normally be going to a very high premium, all of that is actually being plowed into building my agency up."

Marketplace insurance plans were a key factor in Laura Harper's decision to leave one employer for a job as a lobbyist at Moose Ridge Associates. The move was a step up with more independence and responsibility. But it's a small group of contractors, so there's no employer-based insurance.

Harper took the leap a year before the marketplace opened, knowing she'd only have to pay for her own insurance for a year, which is about all she could afford.

"My migraine medicine that I was on at the time was $400 for 12 pills," Harper says. "So I did think every time I got a migraine, 'Is this one where I'm actually going to medicate, or am I going to try to suffer through this?' And I had to treat each one of those pills like gold."

Now with her marketplace insurance plan, Harper says she pays less and gets better coverage. Her migraine medication costs her just ten bucks a bottle. She says you shouldn't have to make a career decision based on access to healthcare.

Nancy MacDonald - the virtual author assistant - says she plans to cut her hours at Starbucks and buy marketplace insurance next year. "What it means is that I don't have to devote 20 hours out of my a week just to cover my kids and myself for insurance."

She'll finally be able, says MacDonald, to devote more time to her career of choice.