Three Coders Built a Better HealthCare.gov In A Weekend

If the government, with all its resources and support, can’t succeed at building an efficient, easy-to-use website to help people get health insurance, nobody can. Right? A trio of 20-year-old coders from San Francisco managed to do it over a weekend.

The Government’s Expensive Fail

Even if you’ve never visited HealthCare.gov, you’ve probably heard about the many issues the site has had. It’s been so overwhelmed with traffic, bogged down with bugs and malfunctions, that many people haven’t been able to sign up for insurance at all. For a site that was supposed to make shopping for health coverage as easy as buying a TV on Amazon, it’s safe to say that the Obama administration has failed miserably.

The government awarded $88 million to the CGI Group, a Canadian consulting company, to build the exchange and provide technical support. They also gave $55 million to Quality Software Services, a health care IT company in Maryland, to build the data hub that serves as an intermediary between the agencies and exchanges. On top of that, several other federal contractors were given multi-million dollar contracts to assist with building and operating the exchanges.

By June 2013, a report by the Government Accountability office found that the government had already spent upwards of $394 million on the system.

Enter The Health Sherpa

Three programmers from California, George Kalogeropoulos, Ning Liang and Michael Wasser, all tried getting insurance through the government website and couldn’t.

“We were surprised to see that it was actually fairly difficult to use HealthCare.gov to find and understand our options,” George told CNN. “Given that the data was publicly available, we thought that it made a lot of sense to take the data that was on there and just make it easy to search through and view available plans.”

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In three days, they did just that and created The Health Sherpa. Truly a bare-bones website, users can enter their zip code and age, tick the box if they’re a smoker, and add family members. From there, users can discover and sort through health plans easily, as the government ACA site was intended.

The term Sherpa refers to an ethnic group in Nepal that help guide mountain climbers up Mount Everest and the other Himalayan mountains. Sherpa is also used as a term for any kind of guide or mentor. The “Health Guide” or Health Sherpa is doing what the government exchange has yet to achieve, so well in fact that in less than a week the site has had almost 200,000 unique visitors and over half a million page views.

A Resource, Not a Replacement

Despite its success, it’s not fair to compare the simplicity of the Health Sherpa to the exceedingly more complicated HealthCare.gov.

“It isn’t a fair apples-to-apples comparison,” Kalogeropoulos said. “Unlike HealthCare.gov, our site doesn’t connect to the IRS, DHS, and various state exchanges and authorities.” In addition, the site doesn’t actually let users sign up for coverage, as it’s meant for research purposes only.

Browsing the Health Sherpa, entering in your information, and finding a plan that fits your needs is the easy part. From there, users must then verify the premiums and subsidies they find with state health care exchanges, insurance companies, or on HealthCare.gov itself. Still, taking that extra step might make using the government site easier.

Little Time, Little Money, Huge Success

Even though the site isn’t a fully-functional replacement to the official health care exchange, it does shed light on what can be done in a short amount of time with few resources.

What’s really amazing is that creating the original Sherpa site cost only a few hundred bucks, the three aforementioned programmers, and three days time. It’s been a hit, with users actually trying to buy insurance but being redirected to the extremely costly, yet infamously difficult to use multi-million dollar site by the government.

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Thankfully, it looks like the Obama administration is taking some pointers from the Sherpa project by enlisting a “Tech Surge” of staffers from Oracle, Red Hat, and Google. Hopefully the injection of a little more Silicon Valley will help fix the health care site we actually have to use.

Brenda Harjala is the Community Manager for SuperMoney. Her mission is to help fight your evil debt blob and get your personal finances in tip top shape.
Photo: Forbes