The health care company Aetna mailed envelopes that revealed the HIV status of some of its customers in multiple states, according to the Legal Action Center and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
The legal organizations and six other organizations are representing the customers, a group of whom are devastated after friends and neighbors saw the envelopes and learned of their status, the firms said in a news release. Attorneys sent a demand letter to Aetna on Thursday on behalf of those affected, calling on the company to stop sending letters in this format and develop a plan to change its practices.
Aetna said the letters went to about 12,000 customers; the law firms say they have received 23 complaints, with more coming in.
According to the law organizations' release, Aetna's letters included instructions for filling prescriptions and were sent to customers who were taking HIV medications as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a pill that helps prevent a person from getting HIV. This information was clearly visible through a window on the envelopes.
"I know of someone who has been kicked out of his home because somebody who saw his envelope learned his HIV status," said Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center, who is coordinating the efforts of attorneys alongside Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
Patients in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia received the letters and contacted attorneys, according to the organizations' letter to Aetna.
"People with HIV need to feel they can seek medical help without their private information being illegally shared with neighbors, family, etc," Friedman said. "So when an insurance company breaches confidentiality in this fashion, it can deter people from getting health care."
The letters were mailed July 28, and on July 31, Aetna was made aware that its customers' personal information was revealed, according to a letter the company sent to affected customers this week explaining the situation.
Aetna determined August 2 that the vendor that handled the mail used a windowed envelope, and in some cases the paper inside may have shifted to make personal health information viewable, the letter said.
"We sincerely apologize to those affected by a mailing issue that inadvertently exposed the personal health information of some Aetna members. This type of mistake is unacceptable, and we are undertaking a full review of our processes to ensure something like this never happens again," Aetna said in a statement.
The attorneys and their clients want to be sure Aetna stops sending letters that reveal personal information about people's HIV medications, Friedman said. Next steps are still being determined.
"We and others are evaluating legal options right now," Friedman said.
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