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LANSING, Mich. (Matthew Miller, Lansing State Journal)--The Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace is scheduled to open for business today, one of the so-called "exchanges" at the heart of the Affordable Care Act.

Though the fight over its implementation had, as of Monday evening, pushed the federal government to the brink of a shutdown, the exchange itself will be rather innocuous: a website,

www.healthcare.gov

, where the state's uninsured and underinsured can compare options and buy health care coverage. The act requires that nearly everyone have health insurance by the start of next year.

The website is "designed so that most Americans will be able to do it themselves," said Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare.

Insurance plans must be described in plain language. There is a toll-free call center for help with enrollment, online chats, online questions and answers, people in local communities trained to provide assistance.

Michigan's marketplace is what's known as a "federally facilitated exchange." The state might have set up one of its own. Gov. Rick Snyder was keen to do so, but the Legislature had other ideas and refused to accept nearly $31 million from the federal government for implementation and consumer assistance.

Michigan got $2.5 million for consumer assistance, though a report from the Michigan League for Public Policy says that amount "will likely be inadequate to educate and successfully enroll 1.2 million uninsured Michiganians in healthcare coverage."

But inadequate does not mean non-existent. The Affordable Care Act provides for "navigators," individuals who are specially trained to do education, outreach and assistance and barred from having conflicts of interest, and "certified application counselors" who are required to have less training and may have conflicts of interest, though they're required to disclose them.

Consumers looking for either can find listings at a site set up by Hazaert's organization, www.enrollmichigan.com, and "every day more organizations are going to get certified to be able to assist individuals, so that list will grow," he said.

A group called Enroll America also has made Michigan one of 10 states where it's maintaining a field staff for its "Get Covered America" campaign, which seeks to educate consumers about the health care law and help them enroll.

"Our organizers on the ground are hitting doors, going canvassing in communities, canvassing churches, tabling at events," said Erin Knott, the organization's Michigan director.

"We've had thousands of conversations since July."

Consumers who want to take advantage of the marketplace starting from day one don't necessarily have to hurry, though. Plans purchased between now and Dec. 15 will go into effect on Jan. 1.

"People need to know that they've got plenty of time," Hazaert said. "There's no reason to panic."

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