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Aetna to pay $17,000 after revealing patients’ HIV status

Health insurer Aetna will pay $17,000 to HIV patients whose status was exposed by mailing envelopes with a large, clear window that showed confidential information.

The company agreed on Thursday to pay at least $500 to each person whose privacy was breached by the blunder in eight states and Washington, D.C.

The settlement, which has to be approved by a court, comes four months after letters were sent to customers currently taking medications for HIV treatment as well as for Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a regimen that helps prevent a person from acquiring HIV. 

Without opening the letter, it was possible to see details of HIV prescriptions and details for purchasing more. 

The Legal Action Center and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania said some patients’ relatives and neighbors learned of their HIV status as a result.  

Without opening the letter, it was possible to see details of HIV prescriptions and details for purchasing more. This is a redacted photo of one patient’s letter from Aetna

Patients were in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. 

Aetna says that ‘this type of mistake is unacceptable’ and that the company is reviewing processes to ensure it never happens again.

‘Through our outreach efforts, immediate relief program and this settlement, we have worked to address the potential impact on members following this unfortunate incident,’ the company said in a statement.

‘In addition, we are implementing measures designed to ensure something like this does not happen again as part of our commitment to best practices in protecting sensitive health information.’

The Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna started notifying customers of the breach in letters sent in August. 

Despite their attempts at apology, legal groups filed a class action suit, and described the ‘shock’ among patients. 

Sally Friedman, Legal Director of the Legal Action Center in New York City, told Daily Mail Online: ‘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.’

Ronda B. Goldfein, Executive Director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said the Aetna letters casual disclosure of a person’s HIV status or use of HIV medication is far more than a technical violation of the law.

‘It creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma,’ she said.

The attorneys said additional legal action is under consideration. 

Truvada is the trade name for the most commonly-used type of PrEP (‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’) drug.

This drug in particular is fixed-dose combination of two anti-retroviral drugs, tenofovir and FTC, in one pill.

They work together to interfere with an enzyme which HIV uses to infect new cells, slowing down the virus’s attack or preventing it altogether.

The drug is designed for people that have not yet been exposed to the virus to protect themselves against it.

Alternatively, people who have been exposed can take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a month-long course of drugs started within 72 hours of exposure.