Aetna expands legal battle over HIV privacy breach, sues plaintiffs for $20M

Aetna letter
Citing 10 outstanding lawsuits and an investigation by federal and state regulators, Aetna says Consumer Watchdog and Whatley Kallas should bear some of the blame. (Legal Action Center)

Aetna has launched a new round of litigation in a case involving the exposure of members’ HIV status, blaming a consumer advocacy group and a law firm that brought the initial class-action lawsuit.

The insurer claims the organizations should pay $20 million in damages to make up for the settlements and fines Aetna has been forced to pay so far, as well as additional civil penalties from ongoing federal and state investigations.

The seemingly never-ending legal fiasco dates back to 2014 when plaintiffs represented by Consumer Watchdog and Whatley Kallas sued Aetna over a policy change that required HIV patients to fill prescriptions via mail. The insurer ultimately settled the suit and agreed to allow patients to fill prescriptions at a pharmacy.

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Aetna hired claims administrator Kurtzman Carson Consultants (KCC) to notify 12,000 customers about the settlement last year. In doing so, the HIV status of the customers was once again exposed through a window in an envelope in which the words “HIV medications" were visible.

RELATED: Aetna sues company that sent mailings tied to HIV privacy breach

In January, Aetna agreed to a pay $17 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed after the mailing debacle. Aetna also agreed to pay a $1.15 million fine to the state of New York.

In its complaint (PDF) filed this week, the insurer says 10 lawsuits have been filed as a result of the breach. The company is also facing investigations from the Department of Health and Human Services and several state attorneys general.

Aetna has already sued KCC, but now it's turning its ire toward Consumer Watchdog and Whatley Kallas, alleging the organizations “worked with and/or supervised” the mailings coordinated by KCC.

In a letter (PDF) to Aetna dated May 22, Consumer Watchdog denied any involvement in choosing the envelope and claimed the purpose of the lawsuit was to “tarnish the credibility” of the attorneys for the organization.

“Aetna’s attempt to blame us is a frivolous waste of judicial resources and Aetna knows it,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, in a statement. “We had no control over the mailing process and had no idea that Aetna decided to use an envelope with a giant window that exposed the recipient’s HIV status.”

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