"It's an experiment between the feds and the states, and among the states themselves," said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit ratings group that has devised an online tool used by many federal workers to pick their health plans. Krughoff is skeptical that either the feds or the states have solved the technological challenge of making the purchase of health insurance as easy as selecting a travel-and-hotel package.
Whether or not the bugs get worked out, consumers will be able to start signing up Oct. 1 for coverage that takes effect Jan. 1. That's also when two other major provisions of the law kick in: the mandate that almost all Americans carry health insurance, and the rule that says insurers can no longer turn away people in poor health.
Barring last-minute switches that may not be revealed until next week, 23 states plus Washington, D.C., have opted to run their own markets or partner with the Obama administration to do so.
Twenty-six states are defaulting to the feds. But in several of those, Republican governors are trying to carve out some kind of role by negotiating with federal HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Utah's status is unclear. It received initial federal approval to run its own market, but appears to be reconsidering.
"It's healthy for the states to have various choices," said Ben Nelson, CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "And there's no barrier to taking somebody else's ideas and making them work in your situation." A former U.S. senator from Nebraska, Nelson was one of several conservative Democrats who provided crucial votes to pass the overhaul.
States setting up their own exchanges are already taking different paths. Some will operate their markets much like major employers run their health plans, as "active purchasers" offering a limited choice of insurance carriers to drive better bargains. Others will open their markets to all insurers that meet basic standards, and let consumers decide.
Obama's Affordable Care Act remains politically divisive, but state insurance exchanges enjoy broad public support. Setting up a new market was central to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's healthcare overhaul as governor of Massachusetts. There, it's known as the Health Connector.
A recent AP poll found that Americans prefer to have states run the new markets by 63 percent to 32 percent. Among conservatives the margin was nearly 4-1 in favor of state control. But with some exceptions, including Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico, Republican-led states are maintaining a hands-off posture, meaning the federal government will step in.
"There is a sense of irony that it's the more conservative states" yielding to federal control, said Sandy Praeger, the Republican insurance commissioner in Kansas, a state declining to run its own exchange. First, she said, the law's opponents "put their money on the Supreme Court, then on the election. Now that it's a reality, we may see some movement."
They're not budging in Austin. "Texas is not interested in being a subcontractor to Obamacare," said Lucy Nashed, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, who remains opposed to mandates in the law.
In Kansas, Praeger supported a state-run exchange, but lost the political struggle to Gov. Sam Brownback. She says Kansans will be closely watching what happens in neighboring Colorado, where the state will run the market. She doubts that consumers in her state would relish dealing with a call center on the other side of the country. The federal exchange may have some local window-dressing but it's expected to function as a national program.
Christine Ferguson, director of the Rhode Island Health Benefits Exchange, says she expects to see a big shift to state control in the next few years. "Many of the states have just run out of time for a variety of reasons," said Ferguson. "I'd be surprised if in the longer run every state didn't want to have its own approach."
In some ways, the federal government has a head start on the states. It already operates the Medicare Plan Finder for health insurance and prescription plans that serve seniors, and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Both have many of the features of the new insurance markets.
Administration officials are keeping mum about what the new federal exchange will look like, except that it will open on time and people in all 50 states will have the coverage they're entitled to by law.
Joel Ario, who oversaw planning for the health exchanges in the Obama administration, says "there's a rich dialogue going on" as to what the online shopping experience should look like. "To create a website like Amazon is a very complicated exercise," said Ario, now a consultant with Manatt Health Solutions.
He thinks consumers should be able to get one dollar figure for each plan that totals up all their expected costs for the year, including premiums, deductibles and copayments. Otherwise, scrolling through pages of insurance jargon online will be a sure turn-off.