Skip to main content

Trio of young coders build health-care website in days

Doug Gross, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Three 20-year-olds create alternate site that lets people search for health care
  • Programmers built Health Sherpa in three days for "hundreds of dollars"
  • Site does not let users actually sign up for coverage
  • It was built in response to problems that have plagued Healthcare.gov site

(CNN) -- How hard is it to create a website to help people get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act?

For three 20-year-old programmers in San Francisco, it took about three days' worth of work.

Spurred by the problems that have surrounded the rollout of the official HeathCare.gov site, the trio created an alternative, Health Sherpa, quickly and cheaply. At first glance, it looks like a triumph of tech-startup nimbleness over government inefficiency.

George Kalogeropoulos, who created the site along with Ning Liang and Michael Wasser, said all three of them had tried using the government website to get insurance.

DNC Chair: Cancellation talk distorted
Sebelius grilled on Affordable Care Act

"We were surprised to see that it was actually fairly difficult to use HealthCare.gov to find and understand our options," he 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."

The result is a bare-bones site that lets users enter their zip code, plus details about their family and income, to find suggested plans in their area.

"The Health Sherpa is a free guide that makes it easier to find and sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. We only use carefully vetted, publicly available data," the site reads. "The Health Sherpa is not affiliated with any lobby, trade group or government agency and has no political agenda."

Tech experts enlisted to help fix Obamacare website

The Sherpa are an ethnic group in Nepal, some of whom have long served as guides for people climbing Mount Everest and other mountains in the Himalayas. The name has come to be used generically for any kind of guide or mentor.

Of course, it's not fair to compare the creation of Health Sherpa to the rollout of the more complicated government ACA site, which everyone from President Obama on down has acknowledged as a horribly botched affair.

For one, you can't actually use Heath Sherpa to sign up for coverage. The site states that it's for research purposes only, and that users must verify the premiums and subsidies they find there with state health care exchanges, insurance companies or on HealthCare.gov itself.

"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. Furthermore, we're using the government's data, so our site is only possible because of the hard work that the Healthcare.gov team has done."

But it does cast light on the difference between what can be done by a small group of experts, steeped in Silicon Valley's anything-is-possible mentality, and a massive government project in which politics and bureaucracy seem to have helped create an unwieldy mess.

NY government website lists bakery, mechanic for Obamacare help

Creating the original Sherpa site took three days and cost "several hundred dollars," according to Kalogeropoulos. The three programmers have continued fine-tuning the site as its popularity has grown. In less than a week, the site has had almost 200,000 unique visitors and over half a million page views, he said.

"We've heard from people of all ages and walks of life, and thousands of people have reached out to us directly via email, phone, and Twitter to thank us to and to suggest features and request improvements," he said. "Tens of thousands of people have clicked through to buy a specific plan, suggesting that we are achieving our goal: helping people find a health insurance plan."

Maybe the Obama administration can learn from the Sherpa example. As it scrambles to fix the heath care site, the government has sought to inject a little more Silicon Valley into the process by enlisting a "Tech Surge" of staffers from Oracle and Red Hat, as well as Michael Dickerson, a site reliability engineer on leave from Google.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
On Tuesday, two U.S. appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on a subject that's important to millions of people: the availability of subsidies to help purchase coverage under the health-care law.
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
It was a tale of two rulings -- the best of times and the worst of times for Obamacare in the federal appeals courts.
updated 6:00 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
President Barack Obama's poll numbers are nothing to brag about, but there's little evidence he has suffered so far this year a "Katrina moment" that caused his predecessor's numbers to plummet.
updated 6:00 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
More than half the public says Obamacare has helped either their families or others across the country, although less than one in five Americans say they have personally benefited from the health care law, according to a new national poll.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
House Republicans are going forward with plans to sue President Barack Obama and will base their legal case on the sweeping health care law he championed and they despise.
updated 4:13 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
They tried in Congress, at the ballot box and in the Supreme Court, but Republicans have been unable to stop Obamacare.
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
The Supreme Court's decision was "sweeping," a "huge blow to the Obama administration," and a "shot in the arm for the evangelical movement," analysts said.
updated 7:45 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
The ruling gives certain companies a right to raise religious objections to providing some types of birth control insurance to their employees leaves a number of important questions in its wake.
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue October 29, 2013
Nationally, consumers are learning a number of well-known hospitals won't accept insurance under Obamacare.
updated 1:16 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Open enrollment started October 1. Here's a step-by-step guide to navigating the insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges.
updated 4:37 AM EDT, Sat October 19, 2013
Obamacare has survived a Supreme Court appeal, a government shutdown and ongoing challenges by opposing politicians. With few exceptions, every American must have health insurance by March 31 or pay a penalty fee.
updated 10:44 AM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
If you don't know what all those health insurance buzz-words like "co-pay" and "premium" mean, you're not alone.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Wed October 2, 2013
Lauren Zanardelli and Graham Foster are the kind of customers the government needs to make Obamacare work.
It's a popular assertion, but is it true? The CNN Politics team hunts down the facts.
Some may offer help navigating the new health insurance marketplace for a fee. Others will warn that you will need a new Medicare card.
updated 12:57 PM EDT, Mon September 30, 2013
Who's in, who's out... and what about the costs? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta breaks down Obamacare.
Consumers can avoid the exchanges by buying plans directly from insurers or through brokers. But should they?
Here's the first look at insurance premiums on 36 exchanges run by the federal government.
updated 10:46 AM EDT, Wed September 25, 2013
If we want to be realistic about health care reform, we have to acknowledge that everything comes with a tradeoff, Dr. Aaron E. Carroll says.
Check out our page with all things you need to know about Obamacare and how it will affect you.
ADVERTISEMENT