Coders make a splash with alternative, but it's no replacement

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 11/13/2013, 04:47pm

Three programmers from San Francisco have whipped up an alternative to the problem-plagued that addresses one of the site’s major problems: people just want to know what plans are available without hassle, with a heavy emphasis on the ‘hassle’ bit.

TheHealthSherpa does just that. Users punch in their zip code, fill out their age, and they’re presented with a list of plans and prices. Obviously you can’t purchase plans through the website, but they provide clear and straightforward instructions on how to contact the insurer directly.

Screen shot 2013-11-13 at 4.26.38 PM

Until last week, users had to register an account before being able to see prices. Fighting through registration was one of the larger, but far from the only, headaches plaguing the website. To their credit, an option to check out plan estimates has been added. It was not available at launch over fears that it would have “failed so miserably we could not consciously let people use it.”

“They got it completely backwards in terms of what people want up front,” said site co-creator Ning Liang in an interview with CBS News. “They want prices and benefits, so that they could make the decision.”

Liang, along with George Kalogeropoulos and Michael Wasser, built the website in just a few nights. Don’t let that fool you – Kalogeropoulos and Liang are both graduates of Yale University, and Wasser graduated from the University of Maryland, according to HealthSherpa’s ‘about’ page. They know what they’re doing.

As handy as their website is, there are some very specific caveats and rules that accompany conversation about HealthSherpa.

This is not some grand example against government waste or supporting free market ideology. Their website is powered by publicly-accessible data, and the HealthSherpa team is nothing if not forthcoming about this.

“We’re using the government’s data, so our site is only possible because of the hard work that the team has done,” Kalogeropoulos acknowledged in a CNN interview.

Nor does their website interface with government agencies like the Social Security Administration, the IRS or individual state agencies.

There’s also the question of scalability, being able to meet the demands of people clicking through to your site. In the CNN interview, Kalogeropoulos said “tens of thousands” of people have clicked through specific plans on their website. Meanwhile, struggled to deal with 26 million unique visitors in its first month.

HealthSherpa is a proof-of-concept, not a replacement, for the problematic Still, it’s a very convenient band-aid as the Obamacare team struggles to get their act together.