Health insurer Aetna accidentally mailed envelopes around the U.S and revealed private data from AIDS patients of various states, according to the Legal Action Center and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. The envelopes sent to about 12,000 people on July 28 had in the front a large, transparent window with patients’ material who were purchasing HIV medication prescriptions.

According to an image taken from one of the envelopes, the American health care company, Aetna, revealed patients’ names, addresses, possible phone numbers, and application forms presenting patients available options to fill their HIV medication prescriptions. This let relatives, friends, neighbors, and other people to see the private information from the patients, which some of them preferred to maintain as a secret. The states where the letters were sent are Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Health insurer Aetna accidentally mailed envelopes around the U.S and revealed private data from AIDS patients of various states. Image credit:
Health insurer Aetna accidentally mailed envelopes around the U.S and revealed private data from AIDS patients of various states. Image credit:

The legal organization and six other organizations sent a demand letter on behalf of those affected to the health insurance company on Thursday, where they called to stop sending the patients’ information inside of envelopes with large visible windows – precisely over the HIV patients’ data and status – and to take “corrective measures” in this case. In the letter, the Legal Action Center (LAC) – which claimed that 23 people have complained and contacted them about the accident – demanded the company to “ensure that this gross breach of privacy and confidentiality never reoccurs.”

“We sincerely apologize to those affected by a mailing issue that inadvertently exposed the personal health information of some Aetna members. This type of mistake is unacceptable, and we are undertaking a full review of our processes to ensure something like this never happens again,” health insurer Aetna said on a statement published on Thursday.

Around 12,000 mails with patients’ visible private information

According to the LAC and ALPP, relatives, friends, and neighbors of the patients actually know about their HIV status after they read it through the large plastic window in the envelopes. The health insurer Aetna apologized in a second letter for the issue and responded that “this type of mistake is unacceptable”.

The company is making a review process to ensure it will never happen again.

Aetna mailed the letters to patients on July 28 and 31, a mistake that was immediately informed and then sent a second letter to customers with an explanation. The health insurer also said on August 2 that it was the vendor’s fault, which used a windowed envelope to put the patients’ private information inside.

Image credit: Daily Mail
Image credit: Daily Mail

“People with HIV need to feel they can seek medical help without their private information being illegally shared with neighbors, family, etc. So when an insurance company breaches confidentiality in this fashion, it can deter people from getting health care,” Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center, who coordinated the efforts of attorneys along with Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said on a statement. “I know of someone who has been kicked out of his home because somebody who saw his envelope learned his HIV status.”

The company mailed the envelopes with instructions for filling prescriptions not only to those patients who were already taking HIV medication but also to those who wanted to avoid getting sick. Close relatives also found out information about patients who asked for pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a pill that prevents a person from getting HIV.

People with the virus can face “widespread stigma,” including discrimination in their employment, housing or school, the organizations said. Ronda Goldfein, the executive director of the Pennsylvania AIDS group, said in a statement that “it creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma.”

Although HIV infections have decreased, the virus is still inside millions in the US

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks CD4 cells, also called T cells, and affects them to fight human body infections. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.1 million people of the American population live with HIV, and 1 person out of 7 doesn’t know it. Although the number of HIV infections declined 18 percent, in 2015 a total of 39,513 people were diagnosed with the virus. The PrEP pill, commercialized with the name of Truvada, which can reduce the risk of getting HIV by 92 percent, but patients have to take it immediately, sometimes for an extended period.

A full controversy about the beginning of the virus has always been part of debates between researchers. According to de CDC, the HIV might be a mutation of the simian immunodeficiency virus, a chimpanzee version of the virus also known as SIV. It was allegedly formed after humans got blood contact with infected animals. Some studies showed that the virus might have developed in Africa late 1800, but reached the United States in the mid to late 1970s.

Source: CNN