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Connecting the dots: Political and legal visualizations from Federalists to metaphorical shoes

My company’s slogan, “connect . . . the . . . dots” is about using an ontology to connect loosely- or poorly-organized  “dots” of legal data to generate a picture of the law (hence the punny name).

This post discusses how people connect dots (sometimes literally) to paint pictures of the law or processes related to it to make complex data appear simple.

Moving from very general to extremely specific, first, there are two political visualizations. One is a chart of the political history of the U.S. Congress, followed by a dynamic visualization of U.S. Senate voting patterns over the past several years.

The next segment looks at ways to look at laws resulting from those politics with two different flow charts. One is a decision tree for evaluating hearsay exceptions, the other is a semantic directed graph that traces how to determine what kind of metaphorical shoes someone is wearing in a Medicare-related regulatory scheme. Yes, you read that correctly: There are actually Medicare regulations about not just one, but two different kinds of metaphorical shoes (details and links below).

Finally, there is a link to a survey about legal research systems. That might seem out of place at first, but one idea behind the survey is to figure out what people want to do with certain kinds legal data, specifically, how they can access the data in a way that allows them to better draw a mental or literal picture of the law, like the charts shown here. If there are enough responses to likely support statistical significance, there is a plan to publish the survey results. So, if this is something that interests you or your colleagues, please participate in the survey and ask your friends and colleagues to participate too.

Without further ado, on to the pictures.


If there was every any doubt that politics are the lifeblood of our representative democracy (or the atherosclerotic plaque slowing it to a halt), this vascular-looking chart should dispell those doubts. The picture itself describes this in more detail, but each color and the width of each color band show how many members of Congress in major parties fell/fall within certain zones of the political spectrum. At a glance, you can see the political effects (or sometimes causes) of external events. What is particularly striking to me is how the political climate seems to generally correlate to events such as economic downturns (Democrats gain seats) or wars (Republicans gain seats), or when you have both a war and an economic downturn (both parties tend to get more extreme). 

(Click here to see the chart at; once there, click on it for a full-size picture--it's huge and requires a lot of scrolling, but it’s worth it.)

Another fun political visualization is from Chris Wilson at Yahoo, (via Rob Richards; Thanks, Rob!) which looks at voting networks in the U.S. Senate.

As an aside, for people who are interested in how technology can help make law more accessible and understandable and don’t follow Rob on Twitter or Google Plus (or both), you are missing out in a big way. Rob curates a steady and consistently excellent stream of journal articles, blog posts, and news stories about these issues. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m grateful that he does, and I’m certainly not alone.

That said, here’s the visualization (if you can’t see it here, please go to the original site):

There are so many ways to look at it, but I think it’s interesting to move the slider all the way to 100% to see what happens; to horrendously mix metaphors, this helps you see who really circles the wagons and who are the cats that need to be herded.  Depending on your politics, you can draw all kinds of inferences from this, but the main point is that the data are there (thanks to and presented in a valuable way that allows people to quickly see what they’re looking at.

Moving on, let’s look at the results of politics: Laws. They’re written in words, but the words are not necessarily clear or written in a way designed to promote efficiently analyzing them, so pictures can help.

Law: Hearsay and Metaphorical Shoes


One way to make sense of legal requirements is a flow chart, that is, a map of facts, decision points, and results. This is a flowchart of hearsay exceptions by Margaret Hagan, currently a law student, who posits: “My hypothesis: the act of putting together a flowchart is itself one of the best ways to learn an area of law... it takes lots of flipping through pages, tracing through notes, going the rule book, and checking whether what you remember or guess is in fact true. It also forces you to go step by step through the logic of a law in a situation.” (again, thanks to Rob Richards for pointing out her work):

(See for original)

I could not agree more, and for years I have made flow charts when looking at an area of the law that is new to me. But it is a laborious process, which is what led me to look for a way to do it more efficiently.

Metaphorical Shoes

Because the laws Congress enacts are often so complex, many of them essentially tell the Executive Branch to figure out how to implement them by writing regulations, which brings us to this abbreviated look at metaphorical “shoes” (click to enlarge):

This is a semantic directed graph (output from a query to one of my company’s systems) for a narrow slice of the “Stark Law” regulations. Similar underlying data can also be used to map processes like a more traditional flow chart. A quick (overly-general) primer on the Stark Law and related regulations: They impose severe financial penalties on physicians reimbursed by U.S. Medicare for referring patients to entities in which the physicians have a financial interest. The main job for lawyers is to figure out whether a doctor has a financial interest (as defined—or not—in the law) in an entity to which the doctor refers patients.

The chart shows a simplified subset of selected relationships among grammatical variations and contextual uses of a metaphorical phrase “stands in the shoes” vs. “stand in the shoes”. Despite the small formal one letter difference in these terms—a small enough difference to cause many search engines, n-gram extractors, or people to just gloss over it—functionally, they are quite different (see the diagram for details). In this case, the directed graph essentially tells you when “these are not the shoes you are looking for” and where to find the right shoes.

Typically, as Margaret Hagan suggests, you have to do a fair amount careful reading, note-taking, and comparative analysis to sort out small differences like this, but just as the other charts shown here make the complex appear simple, I like to think that this chart makes the difference clear pretty quickly, including quotes and references, so you can double-check everything.

I’m certainly not advocating skipping the important research steps of careful reading, note-taking, and comparative analysis, but if there are tools available to make the process more efficient, even if only by weeding out potential dead ends (as in this case), why not use them?


That, among other questions, is being examined in this survey about legal research software. If you have 3–5 minutes to spare, please fill out the survey. If you have friends or colleagues who you think might find the survey or its results interesting, please forward the link to them ( and ask them to fill it out. Ideally, there will be enough responses to publish something in the near future.

As always, comments, questions, etc. are most welcome. 

Original content Copyright © 2013 Alex M. Hendler. All Rights Reserved. All other works subject to copyrights as claimed or dedicated by their respective authors or owners.


Kicking it up a notch: Anti-kickback statute gets expanded . . . by the tax code

Starting on January 1, 2014, it is very likely that the federal anti-kickback statute (AKS) will directly apply to items and services covered by private health insurance, which it has never done before. Currently, the AKS applies to items and services furnished under health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid (and similar programs), TriCare, and Veteran’s Administration (VA) benefits (and indirectly to items and services covered by private health insurance in certain circumstances).

Below is a brief look at what the AKS is, penalties under the AKS, why the new tax credit causes the AKS to be implicated in a wider range of items and services than it has been historically, and finally, the potential real-world impact of the change. If you’re familiar with the AKS already, feel free to skip to the “expansion” section below.

Executive Summary

January 1, 2014 is the effective date of a new refundable tax credit in the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. § 36B) that provides for direct payments from the federal government to private health insurance companies to cover at least some of the health insurance premiums for certain taxpayers with incomes under 400% of the federal poverty level. The Congressional Budget Office estimates (PDF) that this will describe about 8 million people in 2014, increasing to approximately 20 million people in 2022.* As explained below, under the explicit terms of the AKS, this almost certainly makes the items and services furnished under those health insurance plans subject to the AKS.

Because of how the tax credit is calculated and how AKS is enforced (discussed below), this also likely means that people and organizations in the health care industry—including landlords for health care providers—should treat the AKS as applicable to all items and services, regardless of whether they are reimbursable by Medicare, Medicaid, subsidized private insurance, or unsubsidized private insurance. Health care providers and their suppliers who deal exclusively with private-pay patients and do not accept any insurance whatsoever are less likely affected for patients under their direct care, but will still need to be careful about referral arrangements. 

What is the AKS?

The AKS, very generally, is a federal law that penalizes “whoever” offers, pays, solicits, or receives “any remuneration” in exchange for patient referrals or the furnishing, receiving, or recommendation of items or services even partially covered by a “Federal health care program” (FHCP) to which the government even partially makes direct payments. 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)(1), (2).

And yes, “whoever”, really means “whoever”: from doctors, to nurses, radiology clinics, laboratories, pharmacists, pharmaceutical sales representatives, delivery drivers, custodial staff, landlords for health care items and service providers, and even patients; likewise, “any remuneration” really means “any”: from season tickets to baseball games, to envelopes full of cash, a landlord charging higher rent to a doctor (as compared to an accountant) for an office across the street from a hospital, a physical therapist waiving copayments for patients, or even a pharmacy giving out coupons for $0.50 off of a movie ticket. 

In the more than 40 years of the existence of the AKS and its predecessors, there has never been a minimum threshold for an FHCP’s partial coverage of an item or service, the government’s partial payment to an FHCP, or the amount of “remuneration” at issue: a fraction of a penny for any of those purposes is theoretically enough to implicate the AKS. See (search for de minimis).

AKS (and other) penalties

The penalties for violating the AKS are stiff: a felony conviction plus up to a $25,000 fine, five years in prison, possible exclusion from being reimbursed for providing items or services to anyone enrolled in an FHCP, plus assessment of additional “civil monetary penalties” (CMPs). CMPs are also applicable in certain broader situations and will be the subject of another post. 

On top of that, the AKS explicitly provides that any claims filed that result from an arrangement that violates the AKS are now automatically deemed “false claims”, which brings additional penalties under the False Claims Act (FCA). See 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g). There are some additional FCA-related issues that will be discussed in a future post.

Finally, the AKS explicitly does not require any specific intent to violate it—meaning that you only need to be aware that you're doing something, but you do not need to know that that “something” is prohibited by the AKS. The AKS also explicitly provides that you don’t need to know that the AKS even exists to be guilty of violating it. So if you are involved in any way with delivering or receiving health care items or services, now, more than ever, you ignore the AKS at your peril. See 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(h).

AKS expansion beyond its historical reach

The AKS directly applies only to items and services services furnished under FHCPs, which are commonly—yet not entirely accurately—understood to mean programs such as Medicare, Medicaid (and similar programs), TriCare, and the VA.

So, what is an FHCP? An FHCP is defined by statute as:

any plan or program that provides health benefits, whether directly, through insurance, or otherwise, which is funded directly, in whole or in part, by the United States Government (other than the health insurance program under chapter 89 of title 5 [of the United States Code])...

42 U.S.C. 1320a-7b(f)(1) (emphasis added). An FHCP also specifically includes Medicaid and Title V and XX programs. See 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(f)(2); 42 C.F.R. § 1001.2.

The “health insurance program under chapter 89 of title 5”, is otherwise known as the “Federal Employees Health Benefits Program”, or FEHBP. The FEHBP is the private health insurance program for federal civilian employees, under which the federal government makes direct payments to health insurance companies to cover part of the premiums for eligible beneficiaries. The applicable statute and regulations specifically exempt only the FEHBP from the definition of FHCP, implying that the FEHBP would otherwise be included in the AKS’s definition of an FHCP.

Starting January 1, 2014, 26 U.S.C. § 36B (enacted by Pub. L. 111-148 § 1401) provides a refundable tax credit for individuals whose health insurance costs exceed certain thresholds as a proportion of income. It is not clear whether this credit alone would cause these individuals’ insurance to become an FHCP (my view: likely yes, because the credit is issued specifically to subsidize health insurance premiums, but this will be fully explored in yet another future post), but coupled with how this credit is paid on behalf of taxpayers (below), and without a specific statutory exception, it almost certainly makes certain private health insurance qualify as an FHCP under the AKS.

42 U.S.C. § 18082(c)(2)(A) (enacted by Pub. L. 111-148 § 1411) provides that the Secretary of the Treasury shall make “advance payment” in the amount of the applicable credit “to the issuer of a qualified health plan” on a monthly basis to cover partial health insurance premiums on behalf of eligible taxpayers. See also 26 C.F.R. § 1.36B-2 (affirming the Secretary’s decision to make monthly advance premium payments).

Because the government makes direct payments to private health insurers, anyone who has government-subsidized insurance through those insurers is enrolled in a “program that provides health benefits ... through insurance ... which is funded directly, in whole or in part, by the United States Government” and which is not described in Title 5, Chapter 89 of the US Code. Assuming that “payment . . . to the issuer of a qualified health plan” from the Treasury is equivalent to “funded directly” by the Government—and without serious contortions of the English language, that seems to be a fair assumption, particularly given the specific exclusion of only the FEHBP from the definition of FHCP, but no specific exclusion for advance premium payments from the definition of FHCP—the AKS applies.

Still, how can one be sure of whether a health insurance plan or benefit qualifies as an FHCP? A question was recently raised on an American Health Lawyers Association email list that I moderate about whether the federal government maintains a public list of FHCPs to which the AKS applies. One benefit of such list would be that if the government maintained such a list, people could definitively know whether or not they are subject to the AKS.

The answer appears to be that there is no such official list, and the government presumably has little incentive to maintain such a list. Why? Two reasons: 1) The AKS is intentionally broad, so publishing a list might implicitly narrow its possible scope of enforcement in a manner not authorized or intended by Congress; and 2) The definition of FHCP is so broad that it is really only feasible to explain what an FHCP is not, as shown by this flow chart (start in the bottom left):

This makes the advance premium payment issue essentially a two-step inquiry (putting aside the tax credit offered to taxpayers without advance premium payments, and assuming that we are not discussing the FEHBP): 1) Is that insurance “any . . . insurance . . . other than” the FEHBP? Yes. 2) Through advance premium payments to health insurers, does the government directly pay for any portion of health insurance or health care? Yes. Therefore it is an FHCP and the AKS is directly implicated. 

For those who may be interested in seeing a non-exclusive list of other programs that likely qualify as FHCPs (with one exception), it is available here: 42 U.S.C. § 14402(d) (prohibiting federal funding for assisted suicide). However, that list is not specifically incorporated into the AKS, so it is best to not rely on the list for anything other than its stated purpose.

Interesting, but what does this mean in the real world?

One problem for anyone involved in patient care is that the Treasury’s advance premium payments can fluctuate on a monthly basis with respect to any person depending on their income; that is, the Treasury could make payments in some months, but not others. Because under the AKS’s definition of FHCP, the advance premium payment makes the applicable insurance program an FHCP, it is not possible to tell who is or will be enrolled in an FHCP at any given time. Therefore, because of the high stakes involved in violating the AKS, all privately-insured patients should be treated as if the advance premium payment is being made on their behalf, and thus, as if they are enrolled in an FHCP. This means that any items or services furnished to them or their health care providers or suppliers should be treated as subject to the AKS.

What does this really mean, in practice, though? Honestly, probably not much for health care items and services providers who already serve or treat a mix of Medicare, Medicaid, etc., and privately-insured patients: they probably already are (or at least, should be) treading lightly around AKS issues because of the AKS’s longstanding indirect applicability to private insurance benefits.

The AKS currently indirectly applies to private insurance benefits in certain circumstances because the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the entity responsible for enforcing the AKS, has consistently explained for many years that any remuneration arrangement related only to private insurance benefits that could possibly influence FHCP referrals or other business would likely implicate the AKS as well. See; Specifically, the OIG has relatively consistently declined to extend “safe harbor” protection to remuneration arrangements that apply to privately-reimbursable items and services but “carve out” FHCP-covered items and services, meaning that OIG is essentially reserving the right to pursue penalties at any time for remuneration arrangements subject to “carve outs”.

If this stance is any guide, then although the AKS will directly apply only to items and services reimbursable by subsidized private insurance, by extension, it should indirectly apply also to items and services reimbursable by unsubsidized private insurance, because of the potential influence on subsidized referrals.

Therefore, for people or organizations who do not typically deal with currently-recognized FHCPs, e.g., physicians in independent practices that don’t participate in Medicare, Medicaid, or similar programs, the advance premium payment system should be cause to seriously and thoroughly evaluate all of their business and referral relationships.

Remaining questions

There are many remaining questions about potential exceptions, the full scope of the changes, and effects in conjunction with related laws. Stay tuned...

* See Table 3. These figures are the sum of the “Exchanges” population less “Number of Unsubsidized Exchange Enrollees”.

© 2013 Alex M. Hendler. All Rights Reserved.