Aetna Accidentally Exposed Subscriber HIV Medication Information: 12,000 Insured Individuals Affected
A number of news outlets and legal action organizations have reported that when Aetna recently mailed instructions to certain subscribers on filling HIV medication prescriptions, the address window on the envelopes was so large that such information was exposed in violation of federal and state privacy laws. Legal advocacy groups have sent a letter to Aetna demanding that Aetna take corrective action. According to news sources, 12,000 individuals in several states, including New Jersey, are impacted. Looks like lawsuits are in the works.
This issue comes on the heels of an interesting New Jersey case, John Smith v. Datla. Although at issue in that case was primarily the applicable statute of limitations for various claims, including breach of private information, the court addressed breach of HIV-positive status information and the various state law claims that arise from such a breach.
In that case, the plaintiff alleged that a physician breached the patient’s HIV-positive status to a third party without authorization. Although HIPAA does not provide a private cause of action to individuals, the plaintiff alleged, in short summary, invasion of privacy, violation of the New Jersey AIDS Assistance Act (the Act) and medical malpractice. The Act specifically provides that a person who has or is suspected of having AIDS or HIV infection who is aggrieved as a result of a violation of the Act may commence a civil action against the individual or institution who committed the violation to obtain appropriate relief. This relief may include actual damages, equitable relief and reasonable attorney fees, and court costs. Punitive damages may be awarded when the violation evidences wantonly reckless or intentionally malicious conduct by the person or institution committing the violation.
Although Aetna has apologized for the breach, many subscribers have filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services, among other agencies, and others plan to bring lawsuits.