Something as minor as an envelope window has landed one of the country’s largest insurance companies in legal hot water. Aetna is being sued for sending out thousands of letters that inadvertently revealed that the recipient has taken medication for the treatment or prevention of HIV.
In a class action [PDF] filed today in a federal court in Philadelphia, an Aetna customer accuses the insurer of violating the privacy of 12,000 people in 23 states.
On July 28, Aetna allegedly sent mailings to customers informing them of changes on how to fill the prescription for their treatment of the HIV virus.
According to the lawsuit, filed by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the Legal Action Center, the customers’ names and medical information — including that they were receiving treatment for HIV — were visible through a large window on the front of the envelope.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is a 52-year-old Pennsylvania man whose sister learned from the unopened letter that he was taking HIV medication. The man is not HIV positive, but he was taking medications as part of a regimen of pre-exposure prophylaxis (“PrEP”) to prevent acquiring the virus.
Making It Worse
The lawsuit notes that Aetna’s recent mailings were actually made in an attempt to address privacy concerns related to two lawsuit filed against the company in 2014 and 2015.
Those lawsuits related to Aetna’s desire for customers to get their HIV medications exclusively from mail-order pharmacies rather than retail pharmacies.
Customers objected, saying that using the mail could breach their privacy. As a result, Aetna sent letters to customers July 28 explaining the company’s revised HIV medication procedures.
However, the lawsuit claims, these mailing made things “infinitely worse.” Instead of sending instructions on the medication in an opaque envelope, Aetna and its vendor sent the information in an envelope with a large transparent window.
Berger & Montague, the law firm representing the case, points out that dozens of “anguished” patients have come forward since the mailings were revealed last week, including one couple who say they moved because of the embarrassment of having their private lives exposed.
“Aetna’s unprecedented HIV privacy breach has caused turmoil in people’s lives,” Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center, said in a statement. “Some have lost housing, and others have been shunned by loved ones because of the enormous stigma that HIV still carries.”
The lawsuit seeks to have Aetna to cease its practice of using the large window envelopes, reform its procedures, and pay damages.