"You can enter up to three or four different doctors and find out what the best match is for you based on the participation rate," Pearce said.
The system will pare down the plans, and you will be able to compare policies side-by-side, including deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.
Bronze to platinum Policies will fall under categories of bronze, silver, gold and platinum. These refer to cost-sharing or how health care costs will be divided between you and the insurance company.
Bronze policies will have lower premiums, but that's because consumers pick up a bigger share of costs. Under bronze plans, the insurer assumes 60 percent of the medical costs, with the consumer paying 40 percent. The insurer's share is 70 percent under a silver plan, 80 percent in a gold plan and 90 percent for platinum.
Still, there's a cap on how much an individual and family must pay out–of-pocket annually. Next year, the limit is $6,350 for an individual, and double that for a family.
Premiums You no longer can be charged higher premiums for being in poor health. But premiums can vary based on age, where you live and whether you smoke. Older consumers who tend to be heavier users of health care can't be charged more than three times the premium for a young adult. Smokers can be charged up to 1.5 times more than a nonsmoker.
The cost of running hospitals or doctors' offices can vary by locale, which is why geography plays a role in premiums, said Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform with Kaiser Family Foundation.
All the premiums won't be available until the exchange opens. But the Maryland Insurance Administration — which approves rates — released a sampling of estimated premiums. For instance, the monthly premium for a BlueChoice bronze policy for a 25-year-old nonsmoker would be $124 in Baltimore and $114 in Western Maryland.
Catastrophic policies Exchanges are required to offer a catastrophic policy for those under 30. These high-deductible policies typically appeal to young, healthy individuals because the premiums are lower, yet they'll have coverage in case of a major medical event.
Maryland's marketplace will offer three catastrophic policies.
But older consumers who can't find a policy on the exchange that costs less than 8 percent of their income will be able to buy a catastrophic policy, too, Tolbert said.
The deductible — how much you must pay before the insurance kicks in — on these policies is expected to equal the annual out-of-pocket limit, which next year is $6,350 for an individual, Tolbert said. The policies, however, also must cover up to three primary care visits annually and preventive care at no cost.
Medicaid Maryland is expanding Medicaid by raising the income eligibility. Consumers who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty limit will be entitled to coverage at no cost under that program beginning next year.
Consumers in the Medicaid program now don't need to take any steps; they are already covered, Pearce said. Going forward, consumers enrolling in Medicaid will do so through the exchange.
Subsidies Lower-income people who don't qualify for Medicaid may be eligible for two federal subsidies to help with premiums and cost-sharing.
"People ask, 'How is it possible that I am going to be able to afford health insurance in 2014 when I have never been able to afford it before?' It's because of these federal subsidies," Pearce said.
The premium subsidy will be on a sliding scale for those with income of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — with the largest subsidy going to those with the lowest incomes.
For example, if you earn 133 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,281 this year for an individual — you will be expected to contribute 2 percent of income for insurance, or $25.47 per month. The federal subsidy will pay the rest, a benefit that could be worth hundreds of dollars each month.
Earn 400 percent of the poverty level — $45,960 this year for a single person — and you would contribute 9.5 percent of income for insurance, or $363.85 per month.
The subsidy is a tax credit that you can choose to be paid directly to the insurer or to be claimed later on your federal tax return, Pearce said. Or, you can elect a combination of these two methods — taking a reduced subsidy during the year and claiming any unused subsidy later on your tax return.