Got questions about the Affordable Care Act? In a regular feature, the WHYY/NewsWorks Health and Science Desk is providing "The Short Answer."

Today's question

What's a health insurance exchange?

The short answer

At its most basic level, it's a website.

The online exchanges are designed to be a one-stop shop for searching and buying health insurance coverage from a whole range of health insurance providers.

More details

Think about how you shop for plane tickets online.

You may go to Expedia or Priceline or Kayak — a single website for searching lots of carriers. That's the basic idea behind health insurance exchanges, which are also being called health insurance marketplaces. They make it easier to navigate the individual health insurance market.

Who's it for?

Right now, about 15 million Americans buy health insurance on their own. That's a small fraction of the overall market, where the vast majority of people get their coverage through employer-sponsored or government programs.

The new health insurance exchanges are available to anyone, however. So you can check to see what other options are out there. For example, there may be less expensive alternatives to your work-sponsored insurance plan.

Does it vary by state?

The menu of health plans from which you can choose will vary from state to state. When the reform law passed, states were given the option to run their exchanges on their own or let the feds take care of it. The three states in our region — Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have opted to let the federal government administer their exchanges. (A note: Delaware chose to partner with the federal government to offer some additional Delaware-specific tweaks.)

From the consumer end, whether an exchange is state- or federally-managed should have no bearing on user experience. On the back end, administratively, there will be differences.

Healthcare.gov is the website where each exchange can be accessed.

Open enrollment begins October 1. The plans will kick in January 1, 2014. 

The 2010 health law goes into full effect Jan. 1, 2014. How will it affect you, your wallet and your health? Email your questions to  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  or tweet us @newsworksWHYY.