WASHINGTON -- Buying your own health insurance will never be the same.
This fall, new insurance markets called exchanges will open in each state, marking the long-awaited and much-debated debut of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The goal is quality coverage for millions of uninsured people in the United States. What the reality will look like is anybody's guess -- from bureaucracy, confusion and indifference to seamless service and satisfied customers.
Exchanges will offer individuals and their families a choice of private health plans resembling what workers at major companies already get. The government will help many middle-class households pay their premiums, while low-income people will be referred to safety-net programs they might qualify for.
Starting Jan. 1, 2014, when coverage takes effect in the exchanges, virtually everyone in the country will be required by law to have health insurance or face fines.
The mandate is meant to get everybody paying into the insurance pool.
Obama's law is the biggest thing that's happened to health care since Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. But with open enrollment for exchange plans less than 10 months away, there's a dearth of consumer information. It's as if the consumer angle got drowned out by the political world's dispute over "Obamacare," the dismissive label coined by Republican foes.
Yet exchanges are coming to every state, even those led by staunch GOP opponents of the overhaul, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Nikki Haley of South Carolina. In their states and close to 20 others that are objecting, the exchanges will be operated by the federal government, over state opposition. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has pledged that every citizen will have access to an exchange come next Jan. 1, and few doubt her word.
But what's starting to dawn on Obama administration officials, activists, and important players in the health care industry is that the lack of consumer involvement, unless reversed, could turn the big health care launch into a dud. What if Obama cut the ribbon and nobody cared?
Even the term "exchange" could be a stumbling block. It was invented by policy nerds. Although the law calls them "American Health Benefit Exchanges," Sebelius is starting to use the term "marketplaces" instead.
Only one state, Massachusetts, now has an exchange resembling what the administration wants to see around the country. With six years in business, the Health Connector enrolls about 240,000 Massachusetts residents. It was created under the health overhaul plan passed by former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and has gotten generally positive reviews.
Connector customer Robert Schultz is a Boston area startup business consultant who got his MBA in 2008, when the economy was tanking. Yet he was able to find coverage when he graduated and hang on to his insurance through job changes since. Schultz says that's freed him to pursue his ambition of becoming a successful entrepreneur -- a job creator instead of an employee.
"It's being portrayed by opponents as being socialistic," Schultz said.. "It is only socialistic in the sense of making sure that everybody in society is covered, because the cost of making sure everybody is covered in advance is much less than the cost of putting out fires."
The Connector's executive director, Glen Shor, said his state has proven the concept works and he's confident other states can succeed on their own terms.
"There is no backing away from all the challenges associated with expanding coverage," Shor said. "We are proud in Massachusetts that we overcame what had been years of policy paralysis."