Understanding the Healthcare Marketplace

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There's been a lot of confusion around the new Health Insurance Marketplace, rolled out as part of the Affordable Care Act October 1. It's easier to think of it as using a travel site to buy an airline ticket.

Before, you had to go from airline to airline to find the best ticket to fit your needs. That's the way it is with insurance. But the new marketplace (also known as the "Exchange") is a lot like using websites like Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia.

"In the past it was really difficult for a person to figure out if one insurance plan was better for them than another insurance plan," said Don Hazaert, executive director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare. "That's not going to be the case now with these new marketplaces because in a very transparent way you can clearly see one plan versus another plan, how much it costs and what the coverage levels are."

Michiganders will be able to compare plans from 13 different private insurance companies and one new nonprofit. The idea is that it will increase competition among companies, lowering rates and improving services in the process.

Each plan is required to have a certain level of coverage. There are 14 basic standards every plan must include. That's much like the things expected to come standard with airfare -- like an in-flight meal or a free carry-on bag.

"So essentially what we're saying is no more junk plans," said Hazaert. "No one can put a plan on the market anymore that doesn't cover anything. And there's plenty of plans out there like that."

And just like deciding how you want to travel, you can decide how luxurious your health plan will be. Except instead of flying first class, you have a "platinum-tiered" plan. Instead of business you have a "gold-tiered" plan. Silver and bronze plans are also an option.

But if you like the health insurance plan you currently have, you don't have to visit the marketplace, but you're still welcome to explore your options.

"If you're discouraged with your insurance and I would encourage everybody who is dissatisfied with their insurance to go to the marketplace come October 1," said Hazaert, "but you don't have to."

The marketplace opens for business October 1. Consumers will have until March 31 to purchase a plan, or face a penalty.

Click the links below for a more in-depth look at the Affordable Care Act and to see if you will be required to buy health insurance by April 1.

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