'Build once, use often' guides Medicare.gov improvements

The Obama administration's open data framework set the stage for responsive design techniques used in the Medicare.gov upgrade and other planned improvements.

If there’s one IT trend that can’t be ignored, it’s the surge toward mobile as the main way that people get information. Government agencies have been late to the game, and only over the past year or so have begun to design responsive websites, which use a single set of data and code to deliver content to all devices, displays and browsers.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is one of the few that was ahead of the pack. The redesign of its Medicare.gov website not only provides online self-service for Medicare beneficiaries and caregivers, no matter how they want to get it, but it also sets a baseline for the reuse of design tools and methods for other CMS Web projects.

The redesign took advantage of several years of research on what Medicare beneficiaries were looking for online, said Jon Booth, director of the CMS’ Web and New Media Group, and that allowed his group to “look with new eyes” at how Medicare.gov should work for them.

Applying responsive design to the site “was challenging, but adds huge value to consumers on top of the initial design,” he said. “When we launched the project, though responsive Web design was becoming common in the commercial sector, there were very few .gov sites that had implemented it.”

The goal was an increased and more cost-effective use of the website, with common inquiries handled on the website itself rather than through a 1-800-MEDICARE phone line. The number of people using the site has increased steadily, and CMS estimated savings of $9.50 for each self-service inquiry, for a total of $19 million in 2012 alone.

The Medicare.gov site redesign was based on a set of reusable frameworks developed under assets.cms.gov, which was launched at the same time. The frameworks were built around Web services and service-oriented architectures, as well as reusable 508 compliant code libraries and style guides. A central repository was also created to store resource files for the open source community.

The use of open data and reusable design has been a focus of the Obama administration for several years, and its “build once, use repeatedly” and “anytime, anywhere, any device” strategy is at the core of CMS’ current approach to Web design. One result is expected to be easier sharing of data between organizations, with a more seamless presentation of information to the public. Another should be lower Web development costs and greater operational efficiencies.

Indeed, CMS has been moving to building tools off its own open data platforms, Booth said. One example of that is the health premium estimation tool on Healthcare.gov, which was developed using open data APIs for the health care plan data. It’s a model that CMS plans to embrace for future development, he said.

Along those lines, the Medicare.gov redesign is just the first step for Booth’s group. A number of other enhancements are planned for the site in 2014, such as tool redesigns. And there have already been other projects that have profited from the redesign.

“The new projects that we launched after this project, including marketplace.cms.gov and the ‘Learn’ side of Healthcare.gov [launched in June 2013] have all used the responsive framework that was first built to support the Medicare.gov launch,” Booth said.

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