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October 15, 2013

Homemade Health Exchange App Wins HackVT Competition

HackVT 2013 - Team Galenerds
Left to right: Matt Woodside, Michael Commo, Michael Tamlyn, Drew Johnson

As the state moves closer to throwing the switch on health care reform in January, Vermonters are hopping online to use the Vermont Health Connect website. The new exchange, which has taken months and millions of dollars to build, displays all of the plan options and features a calculator that tallies what subsidies you may be eligible to receive.

But what if you just want to know how your asthma medication will affect your potential insurance rates? Or how much you can expect to pay if your child breaks her foot? Vermont Health Connect might not be able to answer quick and dirty questions like that — but an app built in 24 hours by volunteers could.

A team of employees from a Burlington-based health care software firm built just such a thing during last weekend’s third annual HackVT, a hackathon hosted at MyWebGrocer’s Champlain Mill HQ in Winooski. Thirty-one teams of participants stayed up all night to code some kind of Vermont-themed app in 24 hours. This year’s projects included a mobile app to navigate state parks, a "livability index" for Vermont cities and towns and an app to help users learn healthy food and exercise habits — oh hey, that last one was the app that my team built, full disclosure.

But the winner was a "Health Connect Scenario Calculator," built by a team of Galen Healthcare employees calling themselves the "Galenerds." The app allows prospective health care buyers to compare the costs of different levels of insurance under the exchange — plus the cost of not having insurance — based on a user-selected combination of scenarios and medical events. Are you single, making $40,000 a year and want to know what it would cost if you got in a car crash? The app can help you figure that out. Married and planning to get pregnant? You can input those options, too.

"The goal is to allow users to confidently find answers to ad-hoc questions in the nebulous and complicated world of health insurance," explains Michael Tamlyn, an integration architect with Galen Healthcare who was one of the team's four members.

"The moment we decided it was the right subject for us was when one us said, 'Maximum out of pocket cost? What does that really mean? It cannot be as simple as it sounds! I want to see what I would owe if I broke my arm or something.' Suddenly, a lightbulb lit up above each of our heads," Tamlyn says.

Here's a screenshot of what the app looks like:

Health Connect Scenario Calculator Screenshot

It might not be as glamorous as Instagram, but the app’s elegant, pragmatic approach to answering otherwise tough questions made it a winner. Its remarkably simple drag-and-drop interface won praise from the five judges, including IBM Fellow John Cohn, who presented the $4000 first-place award. "We were all kinda blown away," says Cohn. "It's pretty hard to make insurance interesting."

No need to click through a maze of links or fill out a registration form — just drag and drop a few panes and your health care costs were revealed. "I thought that tool was not only a really useful function, but it had a really nice user experience," Cohn says. "I could imagine actually using that."

And best of all, at least to open-source nerds: Tamlyn says all of the technologies they used to build the app are available for free.

Now the bad news: The app isn't publicly available on the web, at least not yet. "We have all jumped back into our incredibly busy lives but we plan to put something together that we can share with the public," Tamlyn says. "We do plan on researching the viability of a full-scale version of the application. We honestly wonder how insurance companies would react to a tool like this — it just may level the playing field too much."

But before they shake up Vermont's health insurance landscape, the Galenerds are enjoying a few well-earned nights of sleep.

Other winning apps included a site to visualize historic photos from around Vermont, a local music player and a visualization of crime data. Click here to see the results.

October is turning out to be Vermont's hackiest month ever. This weekend is the first StoryhackVT competition, which melds the 24-hour hackathon format with creative digital storytelling. And on October 26 and 27, "civic hackers" will work on digital projects for local nonprofits at the Fletcher Free Library as part of Code for BTV's Hack the Stacks event (which, full disclosure, I'm helping to organize).

If you want to congratulate the Galenerds, stop by and see them at their booth at the Vermont Tech Jam, Friday and Saturday, October 18 and 19, at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington. And if you want to join their team, so to speak, you're in luck — they’re hiring.

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