President Barack Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, in March 2010, and the next stage of its long rollout begins Oct. 1, when open enrollment in the “Obamacare” health insurance marketplace begins. The marketplace is a new option for Americans looking for quality health insurance at a low rate.

Under the ACA, most Americans must purchase health care or face penalties, and the health insurance marketplace is a one-stop shop for determining the least expensive health plan that fits your needs and is offered in your area.

Affordable Care Act
Open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchange begins Oct. 1. REUTERS

The creation of the marketplace is one of the key provisions of the health care overhaul, which has come to be the defining legislative accomplishment of Obama’s presidency, but the specifics of just how it will affect individuals and how to apply to participate in it can be a bit complicated.

The first thing anyone thinking of applying to the health insurance marketplace should know is that coverage found through it will begin as early as January 1 -- and enrollment is only open through March 31.

That means you should get on top of it as soon as possible if you’re hoping to have new, cheaper insurance next year. That also means that this whole “Obamacare” thing is at long last very close to having major impacts on the health care market, American families, and the national economy. It’s best to educate yourself ahead of time in order to ensure that you can take advantage of any benefits available to you.

First you need to determine if you are eligible to participate in the marketplace. The basic requirements are that you must live in the U.S., be an American citizen or national, and not be in jail at the time you apply.

Once you’ve determined that you are eligible for the program, you will need to go ahead and apply. The initial ACA marketplace application was slated to be a 21-page headache, a fact that ticked off a lot of observers and pundits. But the final version of the basic application, which was released on April 30, will instead be just five pages.

You will need your Social Security number and information about your current coverage, employer and income, but most of the responses the final version of the application form requires are fairly standard identifying information.

You can fill your application out online -- likely the easiest and most efficient way to do it -- or by mail or in person. To apply online on Oct. 1 or later, simply visit the official website for the program by clicking here and navigate to the application page, which should be prominently displayed there starting that day.

If you choose not to purchase health insurance, unless you qualify to opt out due to low income or other considerations, you will have to pay a fee beginning in 2014. The 2014 fee will be one percent of your yearly income, or $95 per person, whichever is the higher amount, while the fee for an uninsured child is $47.50, though the maximum a family will be required to pay will be $285. These fees will rise significantly in coming years. These concerns and requirements are covered in greater depth here.

If you have questions about your application, eligibility or anything else regarding the health care marketplace, you can call the program’s help line at 1-800-318-2596, or TTY: 1-855-889-4325, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or visit this website for information about other ways to find help.

Of course, all of the above may be rendered moot if somehow Congress manages to defund “Obamacare,” though you probably shouldn’t hold your breath on that one.