The Affordable Care Act created health insurance marketplaces (informally known as exchanges) to make insurance available to Americans who don't have coverage or need financial assistance to afford it, and small businesses and their employees.

Health insurance marketplaces look slightly different from state to state, depending on if a state has chosen to use a federally facilitated model. However, what they all have in common is the goal to help you:

  • Determine if you're eligible for free or low-cost coverage or financial assistance to cover the costs of health insurance
  • Compare and contrast health insurance plans
  • Choose and enroll in a health insurance plan that meets your needs

Health insurance marketplaces provide access to health insurance plans offered by private companies. These plans must cover a core set of benefits that includes hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, prescription drug coverage, and mental health and substance abuse services. Many preventive services are offered at no cost.

To participate in a health insurance marketplace, you fill out an application that provides information about your household size and income. You then find out if you qualify for free or low-cost coverage or financial assistance to cover the costs of health insurance. Health insurance marketplaces allow you to see and compare different insurance plans.

None of these insurance plans can turn you away or charge you more for coverage because you have an illness or pre-existing medical condition.

You can fill out an application in one of five ways:

  • Online at
  • By telephone at 800-318-2596
  • In person with a trained counselor
  • Through an insurance agent or broker
  • By mailing in an application downloaded from

Programs that offer free or low-cost coverage include Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Eligibility for Medicaid has been expanded in many but not all states. You can find out if you qualify for Medicaid, CHIP or financial assistance at, by telephone (800-318-2596) or with the help of a trained counselor. You can find counselors at

You can apply for and enroll in Medicaid or CHIP at any time of the year. If you already have Medicaid or CHIP, you don't need to apply again during the marketplace open enrollment period.

If you're eligible for job-based insurance, you can still look into the insurance plans offered through the marketplaces. But you won't qualify for lower costs unless the insurance offered by your employer is unaffordable or doesn't meet certain standards.

If job-based insurance from your employer costs more than 9.56 percent of your annual household income, you may be eligible for a tax credit. Check with your employer's human resources department if you have questions.

Yes. As with all health insurance plans, these plans have some out-of-pocket costs and copays. You can compare plans to see what the costs are likely to be for you.

Health insurance plans offered through the marketplaces must make a directory of participating doctors available to you. Be sure to check the directory or call your doctor to check on his or her participation before you choose a plan.

Last Updated: 10-31-2018
content provided by
© 1998-2020 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.