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Transparent envelopes lead to class-action lawsuit against Aetna for revealing HIV medication information

Breach of privacy charge is for mailing HIV medication information in envelopes with transparent windows large enough for information to be seen.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

Aetna is facing a class action lawsuit charging breach of privacy law for mailing HIV medication information in envelopes that had transparent windows large enough for the confidential information to be seen.

The glassine window showed not only the members' name and address, but the start of the letter stating its purpose was to advise the beneficiary of the options Aetna's health plan offers when filling prescriptions for HIV medication.

It was mailed to 12,000 customers in 23 states by a vendor. Aetna learned of the issue on July 31 and in a follow-up letter to the members said the contents of the envelope might have shifted to reveal the information. 

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[Also: Aetna violated HIPAA when envelope windows exposed HIV medication use, attorneys say]

In one case, a 52-year-old Pennsylvania man said his sister learned from the envelope that he was taking HIV medication. The man, identified in the lawsuit by the pseudonym Andrew Beckett, is the lead plaintiff in the a federal class action lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit demands the awarding of damages and other relief.

Ironically, Aetna's mailing was an attempt to address privacy concerns raised in two lawsuits filed against the insurer in 2014 and 2015. The company had wanted customers to get their HIV medications exclusively from mail-order pharmacies rather than retail pharmacies, according to the complaint. Customers objected, saying that using the mail could breach their privacy. As part of the settlement in those cases, Aetna sent the letter July 28 to the 12,000 customers explaining its revised HIV medication procedures no longer required them to order their HIV medications by mail.

[Also: 'Careless handling' of private patient information leads to $387,000 HIPAA fine for St. Luke's-Roosevelt]

In a statement released last week, Aetna apologized and said it was undertaking a full review of its processes.

The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the Legal Action Center informed Aetna that they and six other AIDS service organizations had received complaints from Aetna customers.

[Also: Trump's surgeon general pick Jerome Adams led effort to fight opioids and HIV in Indiana]

"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," said Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit along with the New York-based Legal Action Center and the Philadelphia law firm Berger & Montague, P.C.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse