Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Aetna Following HIV Privacy Breach

Aetna, a health care company, faces a class action lawsuit following a privacy breach that saw the HIV positive status of up to 12,000 accidentally exposed. The private information, which included prescribed HIV medications, were made visible through the clear plastic windows of envelopes, therefore exposing the information to family, friends, and neighbours of the recipients.

The error has been attributed to letters shifting inside the envelopes so that the information was made visible. 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.

In response to the incident, Aetna stated that “this type of mistake is unacceptable”. The organisation has confirmed that they are taking measures to ensure proper safeguards are implemented to prevent similar incidents from happening. Six AIDS service organizations across the United States had received “dozens” of complaints from customers about the mailing.

The Legal Action Center and AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Aetna last week demanding the insurer stop sending mail which “illegally discloses plan members are taking HIV medication.” Both organisations have filed a class-action lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by both organizations. Their legal team is made up of professionals 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.

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 spokesperson cited one example of a couple in Florida who have been forced to move home as a result out of fear and embarrassment following the exposure of the HIV positive status. 

The lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit had his private information exposed to his sister when she saw the prescription through the window of the envelope. The 52-year old man from Bucks County, PA 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.

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.”