Healthcare Exchange Explained

(NBC News) The reality of Obamacare is almost here.

Next Tuesday, October 1st, online marketplaces called "exchanges," will open to the public.

The most important things to know are the enrollment dates.

Participants have from October 1st through December 15th to enroll for coverage beginning January 1st.

Insurance companies like BlueCross/BlueShield have opened retail stores in participating states to help explain health reform to consumers and walk them through the sign-up process.

You do not have to go into a store to sign up.

You can use your own computer and log onto

A live chat option is available if you have questions.

You'll need to know your income to find out your costs and whether you qualify for subsidies.

"When you're shopping, you will pay the amount of the premium minus the subsidy. So you will see that benefit up front," explains Ashlee Smart of BlueCross/BlueShield of North Carolina.

The application process will not examine your health and will not include questions about pre-existing conditions like cancer or diabetes.

Many analysts expect a lot of activity online and in stores October 1st, then you'll have until December 15th to sign up for coverage.

You have until March 31st to get health care through "Obamacare" in 2014.

Although details on every plan are not yet available a new federal report projects rates in most states will be lower than originally thought.

If you don't have online access, you can sign up by calling 1-800-318-2596.

Helpers will also be staffed in many hospitals, libraries and even post offices around the country.

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