Aetna to Pay $17M in HIV Disclosure Lawsuit

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By Jacklyn Wille

Aetna Inc. will pay more than $17 million to settle accusations that it wrongly disclosed the HIV status of nearly 14,000 people who received prescription drug coverage or related services from the company.

The deal, announced in court papers filed Jan. 16, will end a proposed class action challenging how Aetna handles protected health information. The patients say Aetna disclosed the health status of 13,487 people without authorization to its attorneys and other parties in the course of settling individual lawsuits over health privacy. Aetna exacerbated this error, the patients say, by sending benefit notices to nearly 12,000 patients in envelopes with transparent windows that allowed sensitive information—instructions on how to receive their HIV medication—to be visible on the outside of the envelope.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2017, days after Aetna publicly revealed—and apologized for—the mailing error. In September, Aetna announced a program to provide “immediate relief” to people who were financially harmed by the breach. Through the program, Aetna has approved two requests for counseling services and 13 requests for reimbursement of relocation expenses.

More than 1.1 million adults and adolescents in the U.S. are living with HIV, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 40,000 people received diagnoses in 2016, according to the data.

The Aetna settlement provides an automatic payment of at least $500 to everyone who received a benefit notice, along with an opportunity to request up to $20,000 in additional payments for financial and non-financial harm. Aetna also agreed to change its business practices to better protect private health information in the future.

The 57-count lawsuit accused Aetna of violating the laws of 22 states and the District of Columbia.

The deal must receive court approval before becoming final. The case is pending before Judge Juan R. Sanchez of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Aetna is represented by Manatt Phelps & Phillips and Elliott Greenleaf PC. The patients are represented by Berger & Montague PC, AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Legal Action Center, Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP, and Dorros Law.

The deal allows the patients’ lawyers to seek attorneys’ fees of nearly $4.3 million.

The case is Beckett v. Aetna, Inc., E.D. Pa., No. 2:17-cv-03864-JS, motion for settlement approval 1/16/18.

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