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Start-up Obamacare website gets media high-fives

The programmer-in-a-garage theme has made heroes from Bill Gates to the Development Seed team that coded the front-end of Healthcare.gov. Now a trio in their 20s who founded HealthSherpa have become media darlings for a healthcare website they built in three days.

HealthSherpa.com takes your zip code and age and returns a list of Affordable Care Act-compliant health plans you can buy in the four metal categories, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Then it sends you to the insurance companies' toll free numbers or websites to learn more and buy.

The HealthSherpa team -- George Kalogeropoulos, Ning Liang and Michael Wasser  -- understand, as the media doesn't, that this isn't in the same programming class as a federal healthcare exchange interfaceing with 50 states, untold insurance agencies and giant backend federal databases.

"The Healthcare.gov developers were working on a much more complex project than ours. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison," said Kalogeropoulos, who once tried to read the entire Affordable Care Act document cover to cover.

The threesome work in real estate by day and first started collaborating on projects to make data useful and accessible to people. OPSCOST, an earlier website they built, got kudos for letting people plug in a medical procedure they need and the city or county where they live, and get a list of places where the procedure is performed, and what each one charges for it.

Their new site HealthSherpa, which has been lauded for being built in three days, caught fire on social media about a week ago and has received about 225,000 visits and 2,000 e-mails in a 10-day period.

HealthSherpa is fast and light, but functionally too simple to be highly useful beyond a quick overview of health plans. But that will change dramatically as the team responds to e-mails asking to see not only the health plan prices, but also their deductibles, cost sharing terms and out-of-pocket costs. 

To do that, Kalogeropoulos used Amazon's Mechanical Turk to get an instant workforce scouring the 2,350 health plans offered in the federal healthcare marketplace for that information. Sooner than you can say Ruby on Rails -- the name of the framework they used to build their website -- HealthSherpa will give you a very good approximation of the heatlhplan options you can see when enrolling on Healthcare.gov, 

You'll still need to enroll in a plan somewhere off the HeatlhSherpa site -- on Healthcare.gov or with an insurance agent or healthcare navigator. Federal subsidies can only be applied for on Healthcare.gov, so be sure you work with someone who's certified to help you sign up there, if you don't do it yourself. 

As Kalogeropoulos explained, the HealthSherpa interface wasn't hard to do. The challenge is in getting and "cleaning" the data to make it consistent. 

For instance, one of the team's big hurdles was getting the age curves for the different states from the Department of Health and Human Services, which was playing hard to get. This information is important because the cost of every health plan is tied to each year of a person's age as well as where he or she lives. 

Luckily, they stumbled on the data in a spreadsheet that HHSy had published online, concealed behind a "hidden tabs" feature that programmers know how to undo.

"We couldn't believe it, We compared the results with the Kaiser Family Foundation calculator to see if we had the real thing," Kalogeropoulos said. They did. 


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