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Third-Party Mailing Error Sees Aetna Plan Members’ HIV Status Disclosed

Aetna is in the news again for the wrong reasons, having experienced another protected health information breach. The latest incident impacts approximately 12,000 Aetna plan members and resulted in highly sensitive information being disclosed to unauthorized individuals.

An error was made in a recent mailing to plan members. That error resulted in the HIV positive status of members being disclosed to other individuals. The letters advised plan members about their options for filling in their HIV prescriptions. However, some of that information was visible through the transparent plastic window in the envelope along with names and addresses. The mailing was sent by a third-party vendor on July 28, 2017.

Aetna was notified of the error by the Legal Action Center and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which in turn were notified of the error by some individuals whose HIV status had been disclosed. Those individuals said that in addition to the information being visible to the mailman, the letters had been viewed by roommates, neighbors and family members.

The potential harm caused by an error such as this is considerable. As Ronda Goldfein, executive director of AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania explained, “It creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma.”

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All patients affected by the privacy breach have now been informed of the error by mail. Aetna explained that for some patients, the letter had slipped inside the envelope making the sensitive information visible. Aetna explained to patients that the “mistake is unacceptable” and that a review is now being conducted to ensure similar incidents do not occur in the future.

This breach comes just two months after Aetna announced the discovery of an error that resulted in the protected health information of approximately 5,000 individuals being indexed by search engines and made available to unauthorized individuals over the Internet.

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.