tseipel@mercurynews.com

After years of puzzling debate and fiery controversy over Obamacare, California and the rest of the nation are about to start putting the pieces together.

It all begins Tuesday, when Americans who don't currently have health coverage can start shopping online or by phone for insurance under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Think Priceline or Expedia -- but instead of comparing flights and hotel rooms, you'll be comparing health insurance plans, made easier because each one has to include the same 10 benefits.

California may be a leader in preparing for the massive policy shift. But many Bay Area residents still aren't sure what it means to them, or what Covered California, the state's new health insurance exchange, is all about.

While Californians won't use the new marketplace if they are already covered by their employer or a government program like Medicare or Medi-Cal, the long-awaited rollout of one of the biggest changes to the health care system will affect more than 40 million people nationwide.

Today, we look at five people whose stories will help answer many questions about the new exchange -- from a young manager of a social-media website who'd rather pay a penalty than buy insurance to a small-business owner and a chronically ill nurse practitioner who are counting on the exchange to save them big bucks.

What happens to these people over the next year will eventually answer a question almost all Americans are asking: Will Obamacare work?