MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont Agency of Human Services will use an $18 million federal grant to help implement the next phase of the U.S. health care reform law.

That phase is taking place as the state moves toward implementation of the first-in-the-nation, single-payer health insurance system. The grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services will be used so the state can continue the planning, development and design of its health benefits marketplace, or exchange, which eventually will help people buy private health insurance online.

The grant comes on top of a $1 million planning grant the state received last year, Vermont Health Care Reform Director Robin Lunge said.

"What we've been working on to date has been high-level design details around the exchange, and what we will be moving to in this next year is drilling into the nuts and bolts of how it would work," Lunge said.

The Vermont grant was announced on Tuesday as part of $220 million in grants that are being sent to 13 states.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said the grant was "great news from Washington" because it will enable the state to create an easy-to-use Web-based system to help people find health care benefits and plan for affordable benefit packages.

"This grant will move us further along the path toward a single-payer health care system in Vermont that controls skyrocketing costs threatening Vermont families and businesses," Shumlin said.

The exchange must be operational by Jan. 1. Under the federal health care law, insurance exchanges must be established in every state to offer people affordable choices for health insurance coverage beginning in 2014.

Vermont's single-payer health care law was passed earlier this year by lawmakers knowing that the federal health exchange was part of the process. Vermont plans to structure its exchange so it can be converted by 2017 to a public, single-payer health care system.

The grant was announced the day the state was planning to hold the first of four public meetings to get opinions on how it should implement its single-payer health care system. Participants are expected to talk about the challenges facing Vermont's health care system, possible principles for a health care financing system and an overview of possible funding sources.

The Tuesday session was scheduled to be held in Marlboro. Other sessions are scheduled for Rutland and Williston. A fourth will be scheduled for the Northeast Kingdom.

Separately on Tuesday, the Green Mountain Care Board and the Department of Health Access, the groups implementing Vermont's single-payer health care system, announced the appointment of two new staff members. Lunge said the salary of one of those officials, Lindsay Tucker, would be paid for with the grant announced on Tuesday.