Obamacare mess is opportunity for Valley hackfest

October 21, 2013

By Daniel Indiviglio
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Obamacare mess is an opportunity for a Silicon Valley hackfest. The launch of the new U.S. healthcare law has been plagued by technological glitches. That gives West Coast tech whizzes a chance to muck in.

Although the monumental legislation has many parts, healthcare exchanges are the law’s doorways and check-in desks. They consist of federal and state websites that let Americans purchase insurance from private companies. To the disgust of libertarians who challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court, Obamacare requires every American to have health insurance by early next year or face a penalty.

A handful of state websites are performing well. In the first week after Kentucky’s went live on Oct. 1, nearly 7,000 residents enrolled. But the federal site and some larger state portals haven’t been functioning properly. At first, a flood of users crashed servers. Three weeks later, the situation remains “unacceptable,” according to President Barack Obama on Monday. He suggested applying by telephone instead, though that won’t bypass all the data-related problems.

Additional hope may lie with America’s entrepreneurial coding experts, many of whom love to talk about changing the world. Obama says he has been looking for help. From Google to IBM to any number of optimistic startups, the double attraction of helping fix a new, progressive system and potentially finding ways to make money from millions of users ought to be irresistible.

Not that the solutions will be simple. Dozens of contractors have already been involved in implementing Obamacare, and outsiders will first have to get up to speed with a mechanism that requires several complex databases to talk to one another. And if the initial coding was disastrous, the tech gurus might want to start fresh.

Health-related IT projects are tough to get right. Large parts of an ambitious British plan to computerize patient records were abandoned two years ago and are still costing money – a forecast 10 billion pounds at last count. So far it’s the Obamacare interface that’s in trouble, not its inner workings. A dose of creative testing and improvement from the tech community could help the president ensure it gets better from here – not worse.

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