Health & Human Services

Silicon Valley Tries to Fix HealthCare.gov

November 12, 2013

By Colin Wood

Three startup founders came up with a new website they hope will ease some of the frustration felt by users of the glitch-ridden federal health insurance portal.

Amid finger-pointing hearings and negative headlines, critics of HealthCare.gov have picked apart everything the government did wrong in developing its website. One major design flaw is frequently credited with significantly contributing to the site’s slowdowns: the fact that a user must first create an account before browsing available insurance plans. Minnesota’s state-run portal, one of the few that did not impose this requirement, was also one of the few portals not to crash on launch day. From all this account creation frustration came a new website, called HealthSherpa, created by three San Francisco programmers over the course of a weekend.

HealthSherpa is intended to be used in conjunction with HealthCare.gov, providing the functionality that many say the federal portal should have had to begin with. Without creating an account or providing any tax information, users of HealthSherpa who live in the 34 states covered by the federal portal can access the open data provided by the federal government to view a side-by-side comparison of the health insurance policies that would be available to them once they progressed through the federal portal. Simply put, HealthSherpa is an easy-to-use government data visualization tool.

Admittedly, HealthSherpa does not have anywhere near the same level of functionality of HealthCare.gov. There are no government subsidy calculations, nor can users buy plans or register with the government, but the website fills a void that many cited as a major problem, said Ning Liang, one of the site’s creators.

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“Coming from the startup world, the IT world, we know that you want to make it as frictionless as possible for the user to get to what they want,” Liang said. “So, you put up a website with a very difficult-to-navigate flow and then you tell people that if you don’t navigate that flow by two months from now that they have to pay a tax penalty. That’s going to make a lot of people very angry.”

While Liang sympathizes with that anger, he said HealthCare.gov isn’t necessarily doing a bad job given the complexity and scale of the project. As an engineer himself, he understands that users see the user interface and think that’s what a particular piece of software consists of, when in fact most systems are far more complicated. In the case of HealthCare.gov, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of health insurance providers and government agencies with data that must be integrated into a common system. Adding still more complexity is the fact that data must be organized in accordance with privacy and jurisdiction regulations, Liang said.

The government definitely made some mistakes, Liang said, but it’s a huge undertaking they’re involved with. “The intent is for people to use [HealthSherpa] to browse to the plan that they want,” he said. “Then once they’ve decided on it, then they can go to HealthCare.gov and go through the application process knowing there’s a payoff at the end of it, rather than going through it and not understanding what’s at the end.”

From start to finish, the website took the team three days to complete, Liang said, and news sources report that traffic has been brisk -- around 200,000 unique visitors have come to the site in less than one week. Functionality for state portals may be added in the future, according to the site's creators.

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