LAKE COUNTY — Health departments and other agencies in a 26-county region of Northern Lower Michigan, including Lake County, are offering free assistance to area residents who wish to sign up for or renew coverage through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace through a cooperative effort called "Enroll Northern Michigan."

The effort is being organized in Lake County through the District Health Department No. 10 office in Baldwin. Its staff members are advising residents to act soon in seeking the free advice to avoid possibly paying a tax penalty to the Internal Revenue Service. Additionally, those who sign up or renew coverage between Sunday, Nov. 1, and Sunday, Jan. 31, may receive a tax credit to lower their insurance costs.

"Enroll Northern Michigan is a network of certified application assisters who can help local residents learn about health coverage that best meets their needs and budget," said Bruce Miller, the organization’s spokesperson. "We offer in-person, confidential and impartial information while helping area residents make side-by-side comparisons of health plans offered on the Health Insurance Marketplace."

Northern Michigan residents can call (800) 432-4121 to set up an in-person appointment to explore their health coverage options or learn where local assistance is available. They can also go to EnrollNorthernMichigan.org to view a list of contact information for local enrollment assistance. Lake County residents also can find more information on the Enroll Northern Michigan program at the District Health Department No. 10 office in Baldwin.

Miller said choosing among different plans can be a challenge, and that is where Enroll Northern Michigan can offer free help.

"You can talk to specially trained staff at a health department, health center or other location who will answer your questions, explain how all this works and point out your options," he explained.

As many as 10,000 Northern Michigan residents remain uninsured. They could face tax penalties if they fail to sign up for insurance during the Nov. 1 to Jan. 31 open enrollment period. The penalty for not having coverage in 2016 is either 2.5 percent of household income or $695 per person ($347.50 for children under 18), whichever is deemed to be more.

Miller said 87 percent of people who signed up for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace have also qualified for financial help. The exact amount of assistance depends on family size and household income.