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Can Aetna Recover After Catastrophic Confidentiality Breach? Public Health Watch Report

Health insurance provider Aetna ran commercials in the 1980s with the tagline, “Aetna, I’m glad I met ya.”

However, it’s unlikely 12,000 of the company’s customers, all of whom are HIV-positive, agree with that sentiment these days. That’s because Aetna, the third-largest insurer in the United States, with more than 46.7 million “covered lives”—and more than $63 billion in annual revenues, according to its most recent figures—sent these patients instructions on new options available to them for filling prescriptions for antiviral treatments and preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in envelopes with “a large, clear window,” as a CBS News report reads.
This set-up revealed the contents of the letter and therefore the health status of the recipients. Ironically, the letters themselves were mailed following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, which had accused Aetna and other insurance carriers of discriminating against patients with HIV/AIDS by requiring them to fill prescriptions via mail order.

The information displayed included patients’ first and last names, addresses, and in some cases, a reference to filling prescriptions for HIV-related treatment. No specific medication name was visible, nor was any statement indicating specifically that the patients had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which bills itself as “the nation’s only independent nonprofit public-interest law firm” that provides free legal services to those with HIV and AIDS, filed a class-action lawsuit on August 28, 2017 on behalf of affected Aetna customers, and their families, who received letters, which were postmarked July 28, 2017. The letters were sent to customers in California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.

“For 40 years, HIV-related public health messages have been geared toward assuring people that it’s safe to come forward to get confidential HIV treatment, and now our clients come forward for HIV-related healthcare and Aetna fails to provide confidentiality,” Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. The AIDS Law Project co-filed the class-action suit with the Legal Action Center and Berger & Montague, a Philadelphia-based law firm. In another statement, Sally Friedman, Legal Director of the Legal Action Center, said “Aetna’s privacy violation devastated people whose neighbors and family learned their intimate health information. They also were shocked that their health insurer would utterly disregard their privacy rights.”

Big advances in treatment can