By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

HELENA – Three companies have filed paperwork to sell health insurance through the online federal Health Insurance Marketplace in Montana.

Created under the Affordable Care Act, and previously called the Health Insurance Exchange, the marketplace will be an online portal where residents can shop for private health insurance beginning Oct. 1.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, PacificSource Health Plans, and the Montana Health CO-OP filed paperwork to sell products on the marketplace.

“The law creates these marketplaces where all health insurance products will be on one website,” said Jennifer McKee, press secretary for Montana Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen. “People can compare the ones they like and buy from the site.”

The idea is to create transparency, competition between providers, and easy access to health insurance for consumers, according to information sent out from Lindeen’s office. Under the ACA, states like Montana whose legislatures opted out of supporting the marketplace will have their sites built by the federal government. Lindeen retains authority over the insurance companies working in Montana.

To use the marketplace, consumers must live in the U.S., be a U.S. citizen or lawfully present in the U.S., and must not be incarcerated. Individuals with employer-offered insurance are not precluded.

The marketplace will also be a mechanism for people who qualify for federal assistance through the ACA to use their tax credits, McKee said. Consumers can continue to purchase insurance products outside the marketplace; however, the only way to obtain assistance paying for insurance is through the marketplace.

“Within the marketplace, Montanans will be able to see if they qualify for immediate tax credits to offset the cost of insurance and by how much,” McKee explained in a memo. “Enrollment for the tax credit and buying health insurance will happen in the same visit to the marketplace, so there will be no lag time in waiting for your tax credit.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, headquartered in Helena, has sold the “lion’s share” of health insurance in Montana in recent years, according to McKee.

In addition to filing with Lindeen’s office by the May 15 deadline, BCBS-MT also submitted forms for a multi-state insurance plan developed under a contract with the federal government. These are intended to give consumers more options in states that don’t have much competition, McKee said, noting that the federal contract doesn’t give consumers assistance with the premium beyond standard tax credits and subsidies available on the exchange.

The nonprofit, member-controlled Montana Health CO-OP was created in response to the ACA and is “dedicated to making health insurance available for all Montanans, including the low income segment of [the] population,” according to its website.

“Member-governed, nonprofit CO-OPs will drive down health insurance costs by adding competition and accountability to the marketplace,” said president of the National Alliance of State Health CO-OPs John Morrison in a statement. Morrison is also former Montana Insurance Commissioner.

Similar CO-OP groups have formed in 24 other states.

The marketplace opens for business Oct. 1, 2013, with coverage and associated costs effective Jan. 1, 2014. In August, insurers will make final commitments to sell insurance on the marketplace.

For more information, visit healthcare.gov.