The health insurance company Aetna has just had a class-action lawsuit filed against it after accidentally outing approximately 12,000 American patients taking HIV medications. On July 28, Aetna mailed information about HIV meds and pharmacy benefits in envelopes with see-through plastic windows, allowing anyone to see mentions of HIV medication below each patient’s full name and address.
Considering the high levels of anti-HIV stigma in society, the affected customers are suing after having sensitive information about their sexual health involuntarily displayed to their mail handlers and any other neighbors, friends or family who saw the letters.
The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, the Legal Action Center and the law-firm Berger & Montague P.C. have filed a lawsuit against Aetna on behalf of affected patients. The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff is a 52-year-old man in Bucks County, Pennsylvania whose sister learned about his HIV meds through the Aetna letter.
Although he is HIV-negative and taking medications to help protect against HIV, his pseudonym in the lawsuit is Andrew Beckett, the name of Tom Hanks’ HIV-positive character in the 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. In the film, Beckett is a lawyer who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Aetna informed customers of their error and apologized in a follow-up letter. They claimed that an unnamed vendor had sent out the revealing mail.
The letter stated, “The vendor handling the mailing had used a window envelope, and, in some cases, the letter could have shifted within the envelope in a way that allowed personal health information to be viewable through the window.” It’s unclear how many patients had their info revealed through the window.
“We sincerely apologize to those affected,” Aetna said In a follow-up statement issued last Thursday. “This type of mistake is unacceptable,” it added, promising a full review of its mailing processes to avoid a similar error in the future.
“We serve nearly 45 million people and are entrusted to protect their personal health information at all costs,” Aetna stated in its follow-up letter. “When that trust is broken, no matter how big or small the impact, it is on us to earn it back. We hope to do that here.”
Featured image by kali9 via iStock