Obamacare Exchanges Are Open, What You Need to Know to Enroll

If you've been following what's been happening in Washington lately, you know that today, the sky will fall. No, not because of the government shutdown — because Obamacare marketplaces are opening! And that's bad, because ... the GOP said so? But if you live outside the Beltway, are uninsured, or are paying an arm and a leg for healthcare, we've got you covered. Here are some things you should know about today's marketplace launch:

1. For some people, it won't matter

If you're lucky enough to get health insurance through your employer, a family member, or your parents (if you're under 27), not much will change for you today. You can tinker around with the sites, but employer-provided coverage is almost always a better deal financially.

2. Bookmark www.healthcare.gov

If you live in one of the states where the federal government had to go in and set up an exchange, you should bookmark www.healthcare.gov. On it you'll be able to search by different coverage plan levels, prices, premiums, etc. Some state exchanges are still scrambling to code their websites, so don't be surprised if there are a few bugs.

3. Check the site to find your local exchange

If you're in one of the remaining 16 states or the District of Columbia that are all setting up their own healthcare exchanges, keep your fingers crossed that your exchange is up and running. D.C.'s exchange has already said that some key functions will not be available by the deadline. The confusing thing here is that each state has its own url — no such thing as a uniform heathcare[stateabbreviation].gov. Use this link on the federal healthcare page to find your state exchange.

4. Medicaid eligibility will vary by state

In some states, more people will be eligible for Medicaid, but not everywhere: only 26 states have decided to allow folks making up to 138 percent of the poverty level to be eligible for Medicaid. That means lots of low-income families will still find health insurance pricey, even with Obamacare.

5. Enrollment is not a race

You don't have to enroll right away. Really, it's not a race. It's more like applying to college: it doesn't matter when you do it, as long as it's before the deadline — and the insurance won't kick in until Jan. 1. The deadline to enroll, by the way, is March 31, 2014, after which you can only enroll under special circumstances.

6. But if you don't enroll, you'll pay

If you don't enroll in a coverage plan, and are uninsured, you'll have to pay a fine. Fines start at $95 the first year — or one percent of your income, if that's higher — and will keep going up. A $400 fine on a $40,000 income doesn't sound too good.

7. And there are ways to get out

If you really, truly hate the idea of the government helping you in any way at all, there are some exemptions. The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta found them out for you, but it's pretty hard to get a tribal membership card these days, and no one really wants to get incarcerated. You're probably better off joining a group that has a religious objection.

And don't worry, this isn't Soviet-style socialism. You don't have to be online at 8 a.m. for fear that the health insurance will run out. Just remember to enroll before that March 31 deadline.