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PRIVATE & PROTECTED

AETNA's $17 Million HIV settlement

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“This settlement sends a message that the law requires HIV-related information to be maintained in a private and protected manner. People living with HIV and those on PReP should feel confident that they can healthcare and privacy,” says Attorney Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director, AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

Goldfein is referring to a recent $17 million settlement in a federal class action lawsuit against Aetna, Inc., the third largest health insurance company in the United States, after a faulty mailing breached the HIV privacy of thousands of Aetna’s customers.

The announcement by plaintiffs’ attorneys comes six months after Aetna, as part of a settlement of an earlier set of lawsuits, mailed a notice in July 2017 in envelopes with large transparent windows that accidentally revealed that the recipients were prescribed HIV medications. It is believed to be the world’s largest data breach involving HIV privacy, and many recipients have reported suffering significant harm as a result of the mailing.

The papers filed in support of the settlement allege that Aetna improperly transmitted to its legal counsel and a mail vendor the names of 13,487 customers who had been prescribed HIV medications and that large transparent window envelopes revealing confidential HIV-related information were sent to 11,875 of them.

Among those sent the mailing was “Andrew Beckett,” a Pennsylvania resident who became the lead plaintiff in the nationwide class action lawsuit filed in August 2017 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, the Legal Action Center, and Berger & Montague, P.C. The plaintiffs include people taking medication to treat HIV as well as those who, like Beckett, take PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylactic that prevents HIV.

The case arose in response to calls of alarm from people throughout the country who received the mailing or had heard about it. The lead plaintiff’s pseudonym is that of the fictional lawyer with HIV portrayed by Tom Hanks in his Academy Award-winning role in the 1993 movie Philadelphia.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, which is now subject to the Court’s approval, Aetna has agreed to pay $17,161,200 to resolve the claims. All Settlement Class Members will automatically receive a Base Payment of either $75 to those whose protected health information was allegedly improperly disclosed by Aetna to its legal counsel and mail vendor, or at least $500 (inclusive of the $75 payment above) to those whose privacy was breached by the large-windowed envelope, whichever is applicable.

In addition, Settlement Class Members whose privacy was breached by the large-windowed envelope have the opportunity to seek additional monetary relief through the filing of a claim form documenting financial or non-financial harm.

The settlement also includes the implementation by Aetna of a new “best practices” policy to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, and provides for attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Beckett, the lead plaintiff, expressed satisfaction with the settlement. “HIV still has a negative stigma associated with it, and I am pleased that this encouraging agreement with Aetna shows that HIV-related information warrants special care,” he said.

Goldfein said that because stigma associated with HIV is still pervasive, some people who received the mailing were forced from their homes or suffered irreparable damages to relationships with friends, relatives, and neighbors.

“The fear of losing control of HIV-related information and the resulting risk of discrimination are barriers to health care,” Goldfein said. “This settlement reinforces the importance of keeping such information private, and we hope it reassures people living with HIV, or those on PrEP, that they do not have to choose between privacy and health care.”

Founded in 1988, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania is the nation’s only independent nonprofit, public-interest law firm providing free legal services exclusively to people living with HIV and AIDS.