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Health Care Company Under Fire After Envelopes Reveal Customers’ HIV Status

Aetna said customer information was revealed through the window of the envelopes they were mailed in. (Photo by Jessica Hill/AP)

Health care company Aetna breached the privacy of customers in several states after it mailed envelopes disclosing their HIV status, according to lawyers with the Legal Action Center and AIDS Project of Pennsylvania.

The legal organizations and eight others are representing customers who were devastated after family, friends and even neighbors saw the envelopes and learned their status, the firms said in a press release. Ronda B. Goldfein, Executive Director for the AIDS Project of Pennsylvania, called the casual disclosure of one’s HIV status much “more than a technical violation of the law.”

“It creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma,” Goldfein said in a statement.

The letters, which were mailed to those currently taking HIV medications or Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP), a regimen to prevent people from contracting the disease, instructed customers on how to fill their HIV prescriptions. Aetna said the letters were sent to nearly 12,000 customers in Arizona, Georgia, New York and several other states.

So far, the law firms say they’ve received 23 complaints, with more expected to come in.

Lawyers mailed a demand letter to the health care company Thursday, Aug. 24, on behalf of those affected, entreating it to put an immediate stop to the letters in their current form. Customers’ private information was made visible through a window on the envelopes.

Aetna HIV

A photo provided by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania shows an Aetna mailer in which a reference to HIV medication is partly visible though the envelope window.
Credit: AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania

“I know of someone who has been kicked out of his home because somebody who saw his envelope learned his HIV status,” Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center, told CNN. 

“People with HIV need to feel they can seek medical help without their private information being illegally shared with neighbors, family, etc,” Friedman added. “So, when an insurance company breaches confidentiality in this fashion, it can deter people from getting health care.”

In their news release, the legal firms noted that due to the stigma attached to HIV, such a breach could lead to everything from employment, housing and education discrimination to violence.

Aetna said it took immediate steps to investigate what had happened after learning of the privacy breach, confirming that the vendor who handled the mailing had used a windowed envelope. In some cases, the letters inside could’ve shifted, causing the private information to be visible through the clear window.

“We sincerely apologize to those affected by a mailing issue that inadvertently exposed the personal health information of some Aetna members,” the health care company said in a statement. “This type of mistake is unacceptable, and we are undertaking a full review of our processes to ensure something like this never happens again.”

Friedman said the firms are currently weighing their legal options.

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