Aetna Settles HIPAA Violation Case with State AGs

In 2017, errors occurred with two Aetna mailings that resulted in the impermissible disclosure of the protected health information of plan members, including HIV statuses and AFib diagnoses.

A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victims of the HIV status breach which was settled for $17 million in January. Now Aetna has reached settlements with the attorneys general for New Jersey, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia to resolve the alleged HIPAA violations discovered during an investigation into the privacy breaches.

The first mailing was sent on July 28, 2017 by an Aetna business associate. Over-sized windowed envelopes were used for the mailing, through which it was possible to see the names and addresses of plan members along with the words “HIV Medications.” Approximately 12,000 individuals received the mailing.

In September, a second mailing was sent on behalf of Aetna to 1,600 individuals. This similarly resulted in an impermissible disclosure of PHI. In addition to names and addresses, the logo of an IMPACT AFib study was visible, which suggested the individual had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

A multi-state investigation was launched to investigate potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and state laws pertaining to the protected health information of state residents, including the Consumer Protection Procedures Act in DC and the New Jersey AIDS Assistance Act.

The investigation confirmed that in both HIPAA violation cases there had been an impermissible disclosure of protected health information, that Aetna failed to protect consumers’ confidential health information, and that Aetna had deceived consumers about its ability to safeguard their health information.

Aetna has agreed to settlements with the State of Connecticut ($99,959), the District of Columbia ($175,000) and a civil monetary penalty of $365,211.59 will be paid to the State of New Jersey. Washington also participated in the investigation but has yet to decide on an appropriate settlement amount.

“Companies entrusted with individuals’ protected health information have a duty to avoid improper disclosures,” said New Jersey attorney general Gurbir Grewal. “Aetna fell short here, potentially subjecting thousands of individuals to the stigma and discrimination that, unfortunately, still may accompany disclosure of their HIV/AIDS status. I am pleased that our investigation has led Aetna to adopt measures to prevent this from happening again.”

“Every patient should feel confident that their insurance company or health provider will safeguard their confidential medical information. Today’s action will prevent further disclosures and warns other insurance companies that they are responsible for protecting consumers’ private information,” said, District of Columbia attorney general Karl A. Racine.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.