Aetna Hit with Lawsuit after Potentially Exposing HIV Status of 12K Customers | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

Aetna Hit with Lawsuit after Potentially Exposing HIV Status of 12K Customers

August 29, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Health insurer Aetna is facing strong criticism as well as a class action lawsuit for a privacy breach that the company acknowledged last week in which it potentially revealed the HIV status of thousands of customers via letters that were mailed out.  

According to an NPR report, one example of the mishap was a letter sent to a customer in Brooklyn, N.Y., in which the clear envelope window revealed considerably more than just the person’s address. It also showed the beginning of a letter advising the customer about options "when filling prescriptions for HIV Medic ..."

Aetna said that approximately 12,000 customers were sent the mailer on July 28 that potentially revealed private medical information, though the company also said it isn't clear exactly how many were affected, because it depends on how the letter was positioned in the envelope, according to NPR. The letters were sent to customers currently taking medications for HIV treatment as well as for Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a regimen that helps prevent a person from acquiring HIV, according to reports.

"We sincerely apologize to those affected by a mailing issue that inadvertently exposed the personal health information of some Aetna members," the company said in a statement. "This type of mistake is unacceptable, and we are undertaking a full review of our processes to ensure something like this never happens again."

Nonetheless, the New York City-based Legal Action Center, AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia-headquartered Berger & Montague, P.C. filed has federal class action lawsuit against Aetna “for its repeated failure to respect the privacy rights of people taking HIV medication by mailing its customers Aetna envelopes where their HIV medication was visible through the large transparent window of the envelopes.” The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, contends that the insurer’s mailing violated several laws by revealing highly confidential HIV information of approximately 12,000 customers in at least 23 states.

The Center noted that Aetna’s July 28 mailing actually was an attempt to address privacy concerns raised in two lawsuits filed against the insurer in 2014 and 2015. The company had wanted customers to get their HIV medications exclusively from mail-order pharmacies rather than retail pharmacies. Customers objected at the time, saying that using the mail could breach their privacy.

As part of the settlement in those cases, Aetna sent the letter on July 28 to 12,000 customers who have taken HIV medications, explaining its revised HIV medication procedures.

According to the organizations’ complaint, the lead plaintiff’s sister learned that he was taking HIV medication from an unopened large-window of an Aetna envelope that revealed the highly confidential information. The plaintiff, identified by the pseudonym Andrew Beckett in the complaint, does not have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but takes PrEP.

In a press release, Legal Action Center’s legal director, Sally Friedman, said that “Aetna’s unprecedented HIV privacy breach has caused turmoil in people’s lives. Some have lost housing, and others have been shunned by loved ones because of the enormous stigma that HIV still carries. This case seeks justice for these individuals. Insurers like Aetna must be held accountable when they fail to vigorously protect people’s most private health information.”

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