The Health Insurance Exchanges Explained: A Complete Unbiased Guide to the ObamaCare Health Insurance Marketplace.

Our Health Insurance Exchange Guide makes using ObamaCare’s Health Insurance Marketplace easy. Our ObamaCare guide includes how-to’s, tips and tricks on finding the best deals on quality insurance for you and your family. From applying for premium tax credits and out-of-pocket cost assistance, to comparing qualifying health plans, to rules for small businesses, our Health Insurance Exchange guide will walk you through potentially confusing process of using the health insurance marketplace.

Open enrollment starts November 15th, 2014 and ends February 15th, 2015.

•  You can obtain coverage, apply for cost assistance, or switch plans at anytime during open enrollment.

• Insurance purchased before the 15th of each month starts on the first of month following the next month after you have paid your premium. In other words enroll before April 15th to get covered by May 1st.

ObamaCare Health Insurance Marketplace

What Are the Health Insurance Exchanges?

The Health Insurance Exchanges (AKA marketplaces) are State specific online marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can shop for federally regulated, subsidized health insurance using side-by-side price and benefit comparisons. Customers will also be able to access the exchanges using the phone, by mail or at certain locations in person.

NOTE: The “Health Insurance Exchanges” are often referred to as “Health Insurance Marketplaces.” The terms are used interchangeably throughout our site. As a rule of thumb we will use “exchange” to discuss the “exchanges” as a whole and “marketplace” to discuss using a State’s website used to enroll, apply for and purchase insurance. Your state’s health insurance website may have it’s own unique name, for example California’s health insurance marketplace/exchange is called Covered California. State’s that didn’t set up their own marketplace, like Texas, will use the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace (

If you are ready to start shopping for insurance now either go to or find your state’s health insurance marketplace here.

Marketplace Open Enrollment

Your State’s marketplace is only open during each years annual open enrollment period.  For 2015 open enrollment starts on November 15th, 2014 and ends on February 15th, 2015.  You won’t be able to get coverage that helps you avoid the fee or change plans outside of open enrollment regardless of whether you shop for health insurance inside or outside the marketplace.  The marketplace is also the only way to get cost assistance.

All Americans must obtain health insurance by January 1st, 2014 or pay a per month fee. However a 3 month “short coverage gap” exemption technically gives you until April 1st, 2014 to be covered without owing the fee. Don’t wait to sign up for the marketplace! Find your state’s marketplace now.

How the Health Insurance Exchange Marketplace Saves You Money

The Health Insurance Exchange Marketplace “Pool” decreases the cost of health insurance by “pooling” together buying power of individual buyers and small businesses to get reduced costs on health insurance like larger employers have been able to do for a long time. Ideally the pooled buying power pairs with marketplace competition to bring down prices for everyone (although some regions of some State’s lack this competition currently), beyond that many Americans making less than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level will be eligible for cost assistance.  Cost assistance includes reduced premiums via tax credits and out-of-pocket subsidies.  Small businesses can also get tax breaks through the marketplace.

Most people who can afford to must obtain and maintain health coverage throughout the year or pay a per month fee for every month. More than half of uninsured Americans can get free or low-cost health insurance through their State’s marketplace / exchange during open enrollment.

6 in 10 uninsured Americans could qualify for health insurance costing less than $100 a month due to cost assistance.

Why use the ObamaCare Facts Health Insurance Exchange Guide?

ObamaCare Facts is a non-biased website. We receive no funding and exist only to present facts on the Affordable Care Act. In keeping with our mission, our ObamaCare health insurance exchange guide contains no ulterior motive. Our interest is only in helping you to understand your states exchange and to help you get the best insurance your dollar can buy.

What Is In the ObamaCare Health Insurance Exchange Guide?

Although each State has it’s own health insurance exchange, there are many commonalities between all the exchanges. The first part of the guide will discuss what every American needs to know about the exchanges including how to navigate the health insurance marketplace.

The second part of the Health Insurance Exchange Guide will focus on specific groups such as small businesses, employers, employees, Medicaid recipients, Medicare recipients and other groups.

The third part of the guide will discuss each States Exchange individually giving you tips on getting the most out of your State’s health insurance marketplace.

The last part of the guide includes health insurance company reviews, reviews of plans sold on the health insurance exchanges and customer reviews. Please use the links in the left side bar to explore more information on ObamaCare and the insurance exchanges while we continue to update our guide.

Types of Exchanges

There are 3 types of exchanges a State can run they are: State-run, Federal-run and join / partnership-run. Regardless of what type of exchange your State runs the results will be the same for you for the most part. To find out what type of health insurance exchange your State is running and for other general information on the exchanges see our ObamaCare Health Insurance Exchange page, or skip this section and continue reading learning how to use the marketplace now!

Some quick Health Insurance Exchange Guide facts before we get started:

• Most Americans must purchase insurance by 2014, get an exemption or pay a per month fee for every month they go without coverage in 2014.

• Everyone can use the marketplace. If you don’t like your current plan or don’t have insurance you should apply for the marketplace today to see your options. Applying doesn’t mean you have to enroll.

• If you have work based coverage you can apply, but you won’t be able to get subsidies.

• If you have Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, any job-based plan, any plan you bought yourself, COBRA, retiree coverage, TRICARE, VA health coverage, or some other kinds of health coverage you don’t have to purchase by 2014 to avoid the fee.

• You can begin using the exchanges October 1st, 2013.

• Insurance purchased on the exchange doesn’t kick in until 2014.

• Open enrollment for 2014 ends on March 31st, 2014.

• If you qualify for Medicare, are a large firm or are illegal or incarcerated you cannot use the exchanges to purchase health insurance (other limitations may apply).

How to Sign Up For The Health Insurance Marketplace

There are four ways to sign up for your State’s Health Insurance Marketplace.

1) Find your State’s marketplace website.

2) Get in person help. You can find in person help by going to

3) Call the 24/7 marketplace helpline 1-800-318-2596.

4) Mail in a paper application. (read these instructions first)

how to get health insurance

The Health Insurance Exchange Guide Part 1: How ObamaCare’s Health Insurance Marketplace Works


Many aspects of the health insurance exchanges apply to every State’s exchange. Here is a basic overview on how to use your State’s insurance exchange online marketplace. The health insurance marketplace will be your portal to shopping for insurance on the exchange.

When Does Enrollment Start?

The health insurance marketplaces first opened on October 1st, 2013.  For 2015 enrollment starts November 15th, 2014.

Special Enrollment

Typically you must obtain health insurance during a year’s annual open-enrollment period. Major medical plans are not sold in the individual and families market outside of open enrollment, unless you qualify for a special enrollment. If you have a life-changing event such as the loss of a job, death of a spouse or birth of a child, you may be eligible for special enrollment within 60 days of the event allowing to obtain insurance outside of open enrollment.


You won’t have to pay the fee for not having insurance if you meet certain exemptions.  Please see our exemptions page for a full list.

Who Can Enroll in the Health Insurance Exchange Marketplaces?

If you don’t have insurance or don’t like your current plan you can enroll. However, only those who don’t have access to Medicare or work based coverage can apply for cost-assistance. You are not required to wait until your plans renewal date to buy health insurance through the marketplace if you don’t like your current plan.

Open Enrollment: What happens under ObamaCare if I have a lapse in coverage?

If you are eligible for the marketplaces a lapse in coverage won’t affect your ability enroll in the marketplace, but it may be limited outside of enrollment.

How the Insurance Exchanges Works: Signing Up for the Health Insurance Marketplace

Shopping for health insurance on the exchanges is easy. Using the Online Health Insurance Marketplace works pretty much like car insurance price comparison websites work now. The first step is to go to your State’s insurance exchange website, in most cases this is referred to as a “Health Insurance Marketplace”. Once on the site you will sign up by putting in some basic information including your family size, tax information, income and medical history. Be open and honest, purchasing health insurance is a tax and you may be eligible for premium tax credits!

Make sure you have the following information about your and your family before visiting your State’s Health Insurance Market Place

• Last years tax information for you and your family

• Projected incomes for this year

• Medical history – ObamaCare does away with pre-existing conditions and gender discrimination so these factors will no longer affect the cost of your insurance. Smoking, weight and age still all affect cost.

• Social Security Numbers (or document numbers for legal immigrants)

• Employer and income information for every member of your household who needs coverage (for example, from pay stubs or W-2 forms—Wage and Tax Statements)

• Policy numbers for any current health insurance plans covering members of your household.

• A completed Employer Coverage Tool  for every job-based plan you or someone in your household is eligible for. (You’ll need to fill out this form even for coverage you’re eligible for but don’t enroll in.)

• Any other important information that could affect your health insurance premium or coverage options. Better safe than sorry!

Here is an example of the health insurance exchange application form for individuals.

Here is an example of the health insurance exchange application form for families.

How the Insurance Exchanges Work: Choosing an Insurance Plan

After filling out your information you will be able to start shopping for health insurance. Like a car insurance website you will be able to compare plans, premium rates and benefits. Although all plans must include the 10 essential health benefits (see below), not all plans are created equal. Further down in the guide you will learn about the types of plans, their additional benefits, costs and your out of pocket costs.

The 10 Essential Health Benefits Required for All Plans Sold on the Exchange

Regardless of what tier of plan you purchase all plans must cover:

1. Ambulatory patient services
2. Emergency services
3. Hospitalization
4. Maternity and newborn care
5. Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment
6. Prescription drugs
7. Rehabilitative and rehabilitative services and devices
8. Laboratory services
9. Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
10. Pediatric services, including oral and vision care

Get a detailed explanation of the Ten Essential Health Benefits.

Learn more about the official health insurance regulations on our ObamaCare health insurance rules page.

Health Insurance Plans

Types of Health Insurance Plans

There are a number of different tiers of plans available on your health insurance exchange. These are known as “metal plans”, due to their names being based off of metals. As a rule of thumb, the more valuable the metal the better the plan.

Plans range from bare bones “bronze” plans which cover 60% of pocket medical costs, to “platinum” plans which have greater coverage but come with higher premiums. In general higher premiums mean lower out-of-pocket costs and a wider insurer network of doctors and hospitals. The plans are as listed below:

NOTE: All cost sharing is of out of pocket costs. Please see ObamaCare health benefits for services that are covered at no out of pocket charge on all plans.

Bronze Plan: The bronze plan is the lowest cost plan available. It has the lowest premiums and in exchange has the lowest actuarial value. The actuarial value of a bronze plan is 60%. This means that 60% of medical costs are paid for by the insurance company, leaving the other 40% to be paid by you.

NOTE: A bronze plan may seem attractive, but the high out-of-pocket costs could mean higher yearly costs for you and your family unless you are also qualifying for out-of-pocket assistance.

Silver Plan: The Silver plan is the second lowest cost plan, it has an actuarial value of 70%. This means that 70% of medical costs are paid for by the insurance company, leaving the other 30% to be paid by you. The Silver plan is the standard choice for most reasonably healthy families who historically use medical services.

Gold Plan: The Gold plan is the second most expensive plan, it has an actuarial value of 80%. This means that 80% of medical costs are paid for by the insurance company, leaving the other 20% to be paid by you

Platinum Plan: The Platinum plan is the plan with the highest premiums offered on the insurance exchange. The Platinum plan as an actuarial value of 90%. This means that 90% of medical costs are paid for by the insurance company, leaving the other 10% to be paid by you. This plan is suggested to those with high incomes and those in poor health. Although coverage is more expensive up front the 90% coverage of costs will help those who use medical services frequently.

Not every healthcare provider has to offer each tier of plan, however, all health insurance companies must offer at least one silver plan and one gold plan to consumers.

Health Insurance Marketplace Catastrophic Plans

People under 30 and some people with limited incomes may buy what is called a “catastrophic” health plan. It protects you from very high medical costs. If you are under 30 and have a limited income you may qualify to purchase a “catastrophic health plan”. In the Health Insurance Exchange Marketplace, catastrophic policies include 3 primary care visits per year as well as free preventive benefits at no additional out of pocket cost. Cost assistance is not available for catastrophic plans.

People 30 and over with low incomes for whom other insurance is not considered affordable or who have received a hardship exemption from the fee may also be eligible for catastrophic policies.

Applying for Subsidies, Tax Credits and Cost Assistance

In order to get subsidies all you need to do is sign up with the insurance exchange. Once you input your families medical and tax information the system will automatically calculate your subsidies. Subsidies determine the limit of what percentage of your taxable income you can spend per month on a “Silver” plan, which is the second least expensive health care plan.

Subsidies are given in the form of tax credits based on your income and are paid by the health insurance companies toward your premium on a monthly basis. Keep in mind that you may lose or gain cost assistance as your income fluctuates throughout the year. If your income increases the difference will be reflected on your tax returns.

Health Insurance Premiums and Cost Sharing under PPACA for Average Family of 4
For “Silver Plan”
Income % of federal poverty level Premium Cap as a Share of Income Income $ (family of 4) Max Annual Out-of-Pocket Premium Premium Savings Additional Cost-Sharing Subsidy
133% 3% of income $31,900 $992 $10,345 $5,040
150% 4% of income $33,075 $1,323 $9,918 $5,040
200% 6.3% of income $44,100 $2,778 $8,366 $4,000
250% 8.05% of income $55,125 $4,438 $6,597 $1,930
300% 9.5% of income $66,150 $6,284 $4,628 $1,480
350% 9.5% of income $77,175 $7,332 $3,512 $1,480
400% 9.5% of income $88,200 $8,379 $2,395 $1,480
In 2016, the FPL is projected to equal about $11,800 for a single person and about $24,000 for family of four. Use the Kaiser ObamaCare Cost Calculator for more information. DHHS and CBO estimate the average annual premium cost in 2014 to be $11,328 for family of 4 without the reform. Source: Wikipedia

Determine if you are above the poverty level to get a better idea of what subsidies you may be eligible for through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

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• You may be eligible for subsidies if you make between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level.

• If you make between $11,505 to $46,021 you can buy subsidized private insurance in the state-based online marketplaces. If you make less than $15,302 you may qualify for Medicaid.

• You may qualify for discounts to help pay for premiums if your income is from $15,302 to $46,021 for an individual and $31,155 to $93,700 for a family of four.

Here are some more quick ObamaCare facts about Premium Health Insurance Tax Credits:

• Tax credits lower the cost of your premium.

• Tax credits reduce the amount of the premium you will pay for insurance.

• Tax credits help low-income and middle-income individuals and families making between 133% – 400% of the federal poverty level.

• Tax credits are available to individuals and families who meet certain income requirements.

• Tax credits can be applied to the cost of your health plan when you enroll – you do not need to wait until you file a tax return at the end of the year.

• Tax credits are only available through the Health Insurance Exchanges. You must enroll in a health plan through the Health Insurance Exchange Marketplaces if you want to use your tax credits.

• Tax credits are paid directly to your health plan. These tax credits are paid by the Health Insurance Marketplace to your health plan to keep your out-of-pocket costs low.

• Tax credits will be adjusted at the end of the year based on your actual income. At the end of the year, the tax credits may be adjusted if your income is different than you anticipated. This means you will want to notify your State’s Health Insurance Marketplace if your income changes.

Qualifying for Medicaid Expansion

If you make under 139% (in State’s that have expanded Medicaid, 133% in others) you may qualify for Medicaid under Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare. You will automatically apply for Medicaid when filling out your State’s insurance exchange marketplace application form.

Qualifying for CHIP

CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. CHIP also covers parents and pregnant women in some States. You will automatically apply for CHIP when filling out your State’s insurance exchange marketplace application form.

Factors that Affect Premium Rates

ObamaCare does away with pre-existing conditions and gender discrimination so these factors will no longer affect the cost of your insurance. Please be aware location, income, smoking status, family size and age all affect the cost of your health insurance premium. So the cost of any their of plan will fluctuate from person to person and from family to family. Please keep this in mind when shopping for insurance on the health insurance exchange.

Using Customer Assistance Tools to Help You Shop for Insurance on the Exchange

The Affordable Insurance Exchange provides consumers with a number of customer assistance tools for shopping on the exchange. Tools to access affordability and quality include comparisons of prices, quality, and physicians and hospital networks.

How to Calculate the Cost of Health Insurance

To get started you’ll want to figure out what your budget is for health care this year. Affordable health insurance is defined as 8% of your income. Take your income for last year and find out if you can afford to pay 8%, if not find a number that you feel you can pay. Although insurance costs differ from State to State you can use this official cost calculator from the Cover California health insurance exchange to get an idea of what your costs may be. Keep in mind that health, age and other factors can increase or decrease the cost of your insurance.

For More Information on the Cost of Health Insurance Please see our Cost of ObamaCare page.

Also see our page on Calculating Premium Tax Credits for detailed information on how the process of calculating credits works.

What if I Choose Not to Buy Insurance?

If you choose not to purchase insurance, not just through the exchanges but in general, you will be subject to a penalty tax on that years taxable income. Find out more about the ObamaCare penalty tax.

Buying and Comparing Health Plans

See our page on Buying and Comparing Health Insurance Plans for more information on buying and comparing types of health plans both on and off of the Health Insurance Exchange Marketplace.

For more information on using the online health insurance marketplace please visitor our “using the health insurance marketplace guide“. This guide focuses on navigating the exchange as an individual or family.

Health Insurance Guide Part 2: Using the Small Business SHOP Exchange to Purchase Insurance for Your Employees

Employers with up to 100 employees will be able to use the health insurance exchanges to purchase insurance for their employees starting at open enrollment Nov. 2014. For now small businesses can use an agent to help them get tax breaks on health insurance. Tax breaks are available retroactivity for all years since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. Learn more about the SHOP exchanges on our ObamaCare SHOP Exchange Guide. This guide focuses on navigating the exchange as a small business employer.

Health Insurance Guide Part 3: Your State’s Health Insurance Exchange

Below is a complete list of State specific health insurance exchange guides. States not listed below will use to find coverage:

District of Columbia
New Mexico
New York
Rhode Island

If you don’t see your state listed above your state uses, get more information on your state’s health insurance marketplace here to find out how to sign up for health insurance now.

Moving Forward with the Health Insurance Exchanges

The ObamaCare Exchange Health Insurance Marketplaces opened October 1st, 2013. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter and keep checking our guide for updates. As more people enroll in health insurance marketplace plans we will have new reviews, tips and tricks to help you navigate the exchange!


The Complete Health Insurance Exchange Guide