Best Tips for Finding the Most Affordable Plan in Your State's Health Exchange

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On Oct. 1, Americans can start shopping for health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. Use this guide to understand the basics every health insurance shopper needs to know.

How to find your state marketplace

States that opted to sponsor their own marketplaces have individual websites. All other states' plans are available through a single government website, healthcare.gov. Find where to buy insurance in your state using a marketplace directory.

What to expect on the website

First, don't be confused by the term "marketplace." This marketplace is like many other e-commerce websites. Think Expedia for your health insurance.

Second, navigate straight to the "individuals and families" section to avoid confusion with employee, employer and broker details.

Third, you'll find plenty of resources to clarify the process of buying insurance. If you are like most Americans, you probably find the Affordable Care Act rather confusing. If you need help, you can sign up to receive assistance from a local Navigator, someone paid by the government to assist shoppers in their selections.

Gather the info you'll need to see your health insurance options

Prepare to enter your household size, your age and the ages of other household members and your ZIP code. You won't be asked about any previous conditions because under the Affordable Care Act, everyone can get insurance regardless of existing health problems.

Get the discount you deserve. Most uninsured Americans will qualify for premium assistance – or a discount on the cost of insurance – but you'll need to share your household income to calculate your discount. If you need to double-check your reported income, head to the Adjusted Gross Income line on last year's taxes (find this on Line 37 on a Form 1040). You can calculate your premium assistance at any time using the Kaiser Family Foundation's free Subsidy Calculator.

How to interpret your options

All plans available through marketplaces include some of the same standard benefits -- free preventive care, clear out-of-pocket limits, to name a few. Many Americans will find a plan for less than $100 per month.

Your plan options will be organized into four metal tiers: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Lower metal tiers (starting from Bronze) have lower monthly premiums, but you'll pay more -- through higher co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits -- when you use the health care services of these plans. Higher metal tiers are the opposite. A healthy young person may opt for a Bronze plan; someone with a chronic condition may prefer a Platinum plan.

At every tier level, most individuals will be offered a range of prices from a number of different insurance companies. Consumer finance site NerdWallet has created an Easy Index to help you research these companies: Use this guide to evaluate customer service, available technology support such as online bill pay, as well as the size of the provider network (so you have more doctors to choose from).

Put a note in your calendar to pay by Dec. 15, 2013

While you may start shopping on Oct. 1, coverage for all plans bought through marketplaces won't begin until 2014. To make sure you are covered on Jan. 1, send in your first payment by Dec. 15, 2013. If you don't sign up for insurance by March 31, 2014, then you will have to pay a penalty on your annual taxes. Visit Intuit's handy tool to calculate that penalty.

Vocabulary you'll need to understand the plans

1. Monthly premium is the price that the insurance company charges for a given plan.

2. Premium assistance or tax credit is the dollar amount that the government will pay to help lower your monthly payments. This would be a discount on a monthly premium.

3. Monthly payment is what you actually pay, after premium assistance.

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