Aetna Accused of Outing HIV Patients in Settlement Letters

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Health insurance giant Aetna was hit with a federal class action Monday claiming it revealed HIV patients’ identities through settlement notice letters advising them they no longer have to order medications through the mail.

Aetna has previously settled two lawsuits accusing it of jeopardizing the privacy of customers who take HIV medications by requiring them to receive medications through mail, rather than at a pharmacy.

In addition to an over $300,000 payout, those settlements required Aetna “send all of its insureds who had been required to mail-order their HIV medicines a notice informing them that they were no longer required to order their medications through the mail,” according to a new lawsuit filed Monday in Philadelphia federal court.

A proposed class led by an anonymous plaintiff referred to as Andrew Beckett now alleges that Aetna and an anonymous mailing vendor did more harm than good by sending this “highly sensitive information in an envelope with a large transparent glassine window.”

“The instructions for the recipient to fill their HIV medication prescription was plainly visible through the large-window section of the envelope,” the complaint states. “Specifically, the visible portion of the letter clearly indicated that it was from Aetna, included a claims number and information for the addressee, and stated ‘[t]he purpose of this letter is to advise you of the options … Aetna health plan when filling prescriptions for HIV Medic…’”

Because of the strong social stigma tied to HIV, many states have enacted laws to prevent this type of disclosure.

Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Confidentiality of HIV-Related Information Act, which prevents health or social service providers from disclosing HIV-related information, except in certain circumstances.

Thirty-nine states have enacted HIV-specific privacy statutes, according to the complaint.

The class action says that Aetna “easily could have avoided the disclosure … [by using] the industry-standard practice of protecting contents of the envelope by using a blank cover page that contained only the recipient’s name and address.”

Lead plaintiff Beckett says he does not have HIV, but takes medications for the virus “as part of a regimen of pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent himself from acquiring HIV.”

He claims his sister found the settlement letter when it came to his house, and she confronted him about his need to take such medications.

He then found himself in “embarrassing and invasive discussions on why he needed to protect himself, which activities put him at risk and other topics of an intimate nature,” according to the complaint.

At the time he was living with his sister and her fiancé, he says.

Beckett claims the incident has had a negative impact on his own health in the form of stress and anxiety, and changed his relationships with family members.

The proposed class is broken up into a nationwide class and Pennsylvania subclass, with the subclass seeking $100 per person in damages.

Beckett estimates there are around 12,000 people in the nationwide class and over 100 in the state class.

The lawsuit asserts seven counts, including negligence, violations of Pennsylvania consumer law, invasion of privacy, breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

The proposed class is represented by Shanon J. Carson of Berger Montague and Ronda B. Goldfein of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

They did not return calls requesting comment Monday, nor did representatives from Aetna.

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