Huff Post reports letters about HIV medication were sent to about 12,000 people in envelopes with a mailing window large enough to read the letters' contents. With the stigma that unfortunately still accompanies HIV in the United States, not only is this a violation of patients' rights to have their medical information protected, but may also put patients' safety at risk.
Ronda B. Goldfein of Pennsylvania's AIDS Law Project said in a statement that exposure "creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma" for people living with HIV.
The breach of privacy was made public by Legal Action Center, a nonprofit that helps people living with HIV to fight discrimination, who presented a letter along with AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania on Thursday. The letter was written on behalf of people in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., and demanded that Aetna discontinue correspondence that could reveal a person's HIV status or medications they are taking for HIV.
Aetna responded and noted the mistake was unacceptable and that the company was taking steps to ensure such a breach never happens again.
A second letter was sent last week to clients who may have been affected which outlined the timeline of the privacy violation and notifying them of their right to file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights. It stated that the faulty letter was sent on July 28th and by August 2nd it was determined that the vendor who mailed the letters had used envelopes where confidential patient information could be seen through the mailing window.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, federal law protects people against being fired for their HIV or AIDS status, but only applies to companies with more than 14 worker. Depending on a person's residency, smaller companies may or may not be bound by the same anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately, the stigma that accompanies HIV and the lack of education about transmission, risk reduction and living with the virus, can place those living with HIV in dangerous situations and also increase their chances of experiencing discrimination. At the very least, disclosing is something that should be left to that individual and not their mail carrier.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced on social media that he too would look into Aetna's privacy breach
Aetna has a lot of cleaning up to do. I've had credit cards sent with more privacy than these letters that may show very private details about patients' healthcare.
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