HIT grants aim to help states build insurance exchange tech systems

The Obama administration on Friday launched a new grant program designed to help states establish the online insurance menus scheduled to go live in 2014.

The "early innovator" grants will be available to fives states — or coalitions of states — that come up with cutting-edge health information technology (HIT) systems to run their exchange programs. The size of the grants has yet to be established, officials said, adding that funding amounts will hinge primarily on the ambitions of the states.

“Consumer-friendly information technology is the backbone of that effort which is why we are creating an incentive for states that are willing and able to lead the way to do so,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.  

The state-based insurance exchanges — a central element of the new healthcare reform law — launch at the start of 2014. The idea behind the competitive grants is to entice states to make the insurance menus as user-friendly as possible — with the remaining states benefiting from the best models.

Joel Ario, director of health insurance exchanges at HHS, said states are telling the agency they don't want to reinvent the wheel 50 times over. 

"It's technology to be shared," he told reporters on a phone call Friday. 

Jay Angoff, director of HHS's Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said the ultimate goal is to create state systems that are "simple, seamless and secure."

"A strong IT infrastructure will be critical to their success," he said.

Officials also downplayed questions about the reluctance of some consumers to use the Internet, particularly for making purchases. 

"That reluctance is certainly breaking down," Angoff said, "and it will break down even more by 2014."