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Lawsuit Filed Against Aetna for Disclosure of HIV Status of Patients

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Aetna following a privacy breach that saw the HIV positive status of up to 12,000 individuals impermissibly disclosed. Details of prescribed HIV medications were visible through the clear plastic windows of envelopes, along with individuals’ names and addresses, in a recent mailing.

The letters related to pharmacy benefits and information on how HIV medications could be received. As a result of an error, which has been attributed to letters slipping inside the envelopes, many individuals had had their HIV status disclosed to neighbors, family members and roommates. While breach notification letters have been sent to 12,000 individuals who received the mailing, it is unclear exactly how many individuals had details of their HIV medications disclosed.

Last week, Aetna announced that “this type of mistake is unacceptable,” and confirmed action was being taken to ensure proper safeguards are put in place to prevent similar incidents from happening. However, for individuals affected by the error, serious and irreparable harm has been caused.

The Legal Action Center and AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Aetna last week demanding the insurer stop sending mail that “illegally discloses” plan members are taking HIV medication.” Now, a class-action lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by both organizations and their legal team from Berger & Montague, P.C. The lawsuit demands that Aetna cease the practice of sending information relating to HIV medications in the mail and that it reforms procedures and pays damages.

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In a recent press release, the AIDS Law Project explained that the disclosure has caused turmoil for some Aetna members whose HIV positive status was disclosed. The press release cited one example of a couple in Florida who have been forced to move home as a result of the disclosure out of fear and embarrassment.

In another example, the sister of a 52-year old man from Bucks County, PA found out he was taking HIV medication after viewing the information through the envelope. That man is the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. In his case, he does not have HIV, but takes the medication as part of a regimen of pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent him from contracting the virus.

The purpose of the Aetna correspondence was to address alleged privacy violations raised in two lawsuits in 2014 and 2015, which were filed after the company required customers to receive their HIV medications in the mail. The plaintiffs claimed such actions could breach their privacy. The cases were settled, and the letter was sent on July 28, 2017 in relation to the change in its HIV medication procedures.

When the press release was issued, six AIDS service organizations across the United States had received “dozens” of complaints from customers about the mailing.

Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center said, “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.”

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.