A better model for HealthCare.gov is Weather.gov

Instead of beating up the government for its HealthCare.gov rollout, let’s look at what the U.S. gets right. It excels at providing data to businesses, individuals, application developers, researchers, or anyone with a need for it.

Demand for federal data is increasing, especially with the arrival of mobile applications and big data analysis tools. To meet this demand, in 2009 the Obama administration created Data.gov. This site has nearly 100,000 data sources.

But the mother of all government data providers may be the National Weather Service. It collects data globally from weather stations, satellites, balloons and buoys, and then crunches it on its supercomputers to produce its products.

You can go to Weather.gov and look up your weather.  But you are more likely to go to Weather.com or a local TV station, all of which rely on the same government data. These alternative providers understand how to reach consumers and add value to the information.

In HealthCare.gov, the government stepped beyond its role as a data services provider to connect customers to a commercial insurance marketplace. There are some 300 insurers working with HealthCare.gov, who are providing some 4,500 insurance plans. What the government is doing is more aligned with what the travel industry does online with airlines, hotels and car rentals.

HealthCare.gov accesses data from Social Security, Homeland Security, and the IRS among others, to determine citizenship, immigration status, household income and size. But all of these checks could have been provided as a service without compromising privacy or security. A modest example of how a federal data service works with the commercial sector is illustrated by E-Verify, which employers can use to verify the eligibility of someone to work in the U.S.

Jeffrey Zients, a former management consultant appointed by the Obama administration to fix HealthCare.gov, is promising to have all the remedial work completed by the end of November. But even if Zients achieves his goal, he has other problems to deal with.

The site wasn’t designed very well for mobile use. The landing page can handle mobile devices, but other pages are not adapted for small screens.

The success of the Affordable Care Act is also dependent on a large enrollment, especially young people. That means having a website that is exceptionally consumer friendly, smart, and capable of selling its product to consumers. This may be outside the government's area of expertise.

The initial rollout of HealthCare.gov required users to create an account before shopping. People aren’t going to fill out forms first and then shop. It was obvious that this was a mistake. The government quickly retreated and allowed anonymous examination of the health plans.

Is there a compelling need for either the federal government, or the states, to be exclusive providers of healthcare marketplaces? All the information that is needed to buy a health insurance policy under this heath law, can be provided as data services by the government to commercial entities.

There is no more reason to close HealthCare.gov than closing Weather.gov in favor of Weather.com. But it is fair to ask why the government can’t open up HealthCare.gov’s data services to other providers, who might be more successful in building an insurance marketplace.  

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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