Can Three Geeks Save Obamacare?

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It’s an uplifting story that also makes you want to despair of government. Three 20-year-old programmers from San Francisco have set up a website – thehealthsherpa.com – that already does a huge amount of the work that the government website cannot effectively handle yet. No, you can’t enroll in Obamacare on it, but you can quickly see your options. What a concept! Available information! Money quote:

“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.”

It didn’t work for me, because they don’t have New York or DC plans yet in their system (California is their strong suit). But I did get instant access to both states’ exchange sites – no clogged system at all:

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.'”

They’re busy updating and adding new features, like calculations for the various tax subsidies, as the video shows. So why not use this site or encourage other young geeks to set up similar ones outside the government just to convey information that is currently buried in healthcare.gov? You can then use that information to call up an insurance company or broker or navigator and buy your insurance. Then ask yourself: how did three 20 year-olds manage this in weeks while the feds had three years and fucked it up so bad it seems like an episode of computer Hell?

One reason is small scale. It reminds me of the difference working for the Dish as an independent, small group of peers rather than embedded in a larger media organization. If we have an idea, we execute it. Before, we’d have to run it up endless ladders, wait for approvals, get last-minute delays, persuade some busy guy to help us, lobby for resources, and on and on. Now I just click my fingers and say: “Get on it, Special Teams!” and we have House ads. Well, not quite like that. But we never want to grow too much for exactly these reasons. In technology and creativity, smaller is better.

We know Obama has the skills to do this. He did it in both campaigns to stunning effect. But then he was out of government, out of all those cumbersome contracting rules, able to be more nimble. Why, one wonders, did he not fight the entrenched ways of doing things and innovate more aggressively? Why did he not focus on this in ways that were not simply urging his officials to make sure they got it right?