Aetna mailings may have exposed members' HIV status

This photo, provided by the Legal Action Center, shows a redacted mailing sent to an Aetna member, which the group says revealed the member's HIV status through the window of the envelope.

Aetna is facing backlash after mailing letters that may have revealed some of its members’ HIV status through the envelope.

The letters, sent July 28, contained instructions for filling prescriptions for HIV medication which in some cases might have been visible without having to open the envelope. Approximately 12,000 members received the letters, according to an Aetna spokesman.

Individuals who contacted attorneys from the Legal Action Center and AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania about the letters reported that they were seen by family members, roommates and neighbors, according to a statement from the two organizations.

“Aetna’s privacy violation devastated people whose neighbors and family learned their intimate health information,” said Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center.

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Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, added that disclosing a person’s HIV status risks exposing them to “violence, discrimination and other trauma,” as a stigma still surrounds the condition.

Aetna sent a letter to affected members last week informing them of the breach and their rights—including filing a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights. The letter says the company learned of the issue on July 31 and subsequently determined that the incident may have a caused a breach of some members’ protected health information.

“We sincerely apologize to those affected by a mailing issue that inadvertently exposed the personal health information of some Aetna members,” the Aetna spokesman 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.”

The Legal Action Center and AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania say they sent their own letter to Aetna demanding that it stop sending the letters in their current form and develop a plan to correct its practices and procedures going forward. They did so on behalf of Aetna customers in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

The groups added that they are considering additional legal action.