Young CA programmers build better health care website

by Adam O'Neal | November 13, 2013 9:51 am


On Tuesday, Quinnipiac University released a poll indicating that President Obama’s approval rating had hit an all-time low[2]. He has lost the faith of a majority of voters on issues ranging from the budget to healthcare. To put it in perspective, Obama has roughly the same support that George W. Bush did at the same point in his presidency. Obama’s foes can be attributed to many factors. But his troubles began with the botched rollout of the federal healthcare exchange website.

Although other issues with the law—particularly Obama’s false statement that all consumers would be able to keep their insurance plans if they liked them—have taken center stage, it all began with the botched rollout of the website. Toward the end of October, the White House promised that the website would “work smoothly[3]” by the end of November. The administration is already beginning to walk back[4] on its self-imposed end-of-November deadline:

On Friday, the man tasked with the digital fixes said the site “remains a long way from where it needs to be” as more and more problems emerge.

“As we put new fixes in, volume is increasing, exposing new storage capacity and software application issues,” Jeff Zients told reporters on a conference call.

And at Tuesday’s White House Press Briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney again said there was “more work to be done” on repairing

Carney, along with Zients and other administration officials, have repeatedly said the November 30 deadline is to get the health care website working for a “vast majority” of Americans looking to enroll in the Obamacare exchanges.


While the Obama administration struggles to fix the website, three 20-year-old programmers from San Francisco have already developed their own website that has already fixed a major problem with the government’s page.

From CBS News[5]:

With a few late nights, Ning Liang, George Kalogeropoulos and Michael Wasser built “[6],” a two-week-old website that solves one of the biggest problems with the government’s site.

“They got it completely backwards in terms of what people want up front,” said Liang. He added: “They want prices and benefits, so that they could make the decision.”

Liang showed CBS News how it worked. “You come to our website and you put in your zip code — in this case a California zip code. You hit ‘find plans,’ and you immediately see the exchange plans that are available for that zip code.”

The programmers explained how they were able to make the website:

Using information buried in the government’s own website built by high-priced government contractors, they found a simpler way to present it to users.

“That’s the great thing about having such a small team,” said Kalogeropoulos. “You sit around a table and say, ‘Okay, how does this work?’ There’s no coordination meetings, there’s no planning sessions. It’s like, ‘Well, let’s read the document and let’s implement this.'”

And they’re also able to update it frequently:

And the features keep on coming. CBS News looked at the team’s website Thursday and pointed out that the tax subsidy wasn’t in there, which is supposed to be one of the most complicated parts of the site. But as Liang explained: “Yes, we added this last night…the subsidy calculation is fairly complicated, but it wasn’t too bad.”

You can’t actually enroll on the HealthSherpa site, but they do provide contact information for companies offering the plans. Users who find a plan they like can go directly to the insurance companies without ever using


The question then becomes: How was a small team without much experience able to produce a website that had—in some ways—better functionality than the government website, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars? Most observers, and the president himself, have pointed to the broken federal procurement system.

The Wall Street Journal explains[7]:

Today, any company looking to work with the government must navigate an obstacle course of niggling, outdated regulations and arbitrary-seeming requirements. For instance, your technology must be Y2K-compliant just to get in the door. The process locks out all but a tiny handful of full-time contractors—companies who also happen to be big federal lobbyists. (Note how CGI Group Inc., which won the largest contract to build, lobbied on behalf of the health-care law.)

And there’s another problem: the entire project was run by bureaucrats who simply don’t understand IT. Three 20-year-olds with freedom can act a lot faster than an army of programmers constrained by federal politics and procedures.

  1. [Image]:
  2. President Obama’s approval rating had hit an all-time low:
  3. work smoothly:
  4. already beginning to walk back:
  5. CBS News:
  7. explains:

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