Windowed Envelopes Accidentally Revealed That Patients Had HIV

About 12,000 Aetna members received letters about filling their
HIV medications — information that was visible through at least
some of the envelopes’ windows. “Young adults who have had
their parents learn their HIV status this way, it’s been
absolutely devastating to them,” the Legal Action Center told
BuzzFeed News.

Posted on August 24, 2017, 22:53 GMT

The health insurer Aetna is under fire for mailing letters that
inadvertently disclosed that at least some of the 12,000
recipients were taking HIV medications, thanks to text visible
through the envelopes’ windows.

The letters, which were sent earlier this summer, are a privacy
breach, according to the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit law
organization that advocates for people with HIV and AIDS, and
the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. On Thursday, the groups
said they had asked Aetna to stop sending the letters and
to correct its practices to prevent similar situations from
happening again.

In the case of one such envelope, posted online by the
groups, the words “filling prescriptions for HIV” can be seen
through the window.

These letters were sent to about 12,000 Aetna members, Aetna
spokesperson T.J. Crawford told BuzzFeed News. It is unclear
how many of these showed private information through the
envelope window.

Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center, said
that before Thursday, her group had received complaints from 23
people across nine states. Those people were taking medications
for HIV treatment or prevention.

“It’s extremely harmful on many levels to people who received
the mail,” Friedman told BuzzFeed News. “Young adults who have
had their parents learn their HIV status this way, it’s been
absolutely devastating to them.” She said she’s also heard from
a person who had been kicked out of his home because of the
letter, and another who felt “suicidal.”

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

The July 28 letter that kicked off the debacle informed
patients of a change in their pharmacy benefits and access to
medications, according to a separate letter Aetna sent this
week to notify patients of the privacy breach. Aetna became
aware of the problem three days later.

In its latest letter, Aetna noted that the information
displayed in the window was the patient’s “first name, last
name, address, and in some cases, a reference to filling
prescriptions for [certain] medications.” It added, “The
viewable information did not include the name of any particular
medication or any statement that you have been diagnosed with a
specific condition.”

Shown this latest letter by BuzzFeed News, Friedman said it
doesn’t matter whether a specific medication or condition was

“HIV is a highly stigmatized illness,” she said. “So even
though it would be completely illegal and outrageous for this
to have happened with some other type of medication or
condition, the fact it’s HIV information makes it so highly
stigmatized and painful for those involved.”

She added that this incident could foster mistrust between
health care institutions and people who need help but may be
afraid of seeking it. “I think this is harmful for patient
privacy rights generally,” she said.

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