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Some Aetna customers had their HIV status exposed in mailing

Pedestrians walk past Aetna headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past Aetna headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut.

Groups representing people with HIV are demanding that health insurer Aetna change the way it mails instructions for filling prescriptions as it violates federal and state privacy laws and could expose them to discrimination.

Information about HIV medications could become visible through the window of the envelope, the groups allege, when the envelopes are processed in the mail. The questionable envelopes were also used on letters sent to those on a prescription regimen called pre-exposure prophylaxis, which helps prevent people from acquiring HIV.

Aetna told customers in a followup notification letter that the "privacy breach" occurred on July 28 and that the insurer learned about it on July 31.

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Attorneys for the Legal Action Center and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania sent a "demand letter," that included a photo of the envelope. The demand letter was written on behalf of patients in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The letter calls on Aetna to develop a plan to correct its practices and procedures.

"Aetna's privacy violation devastated people whose neighbors and family learned their intimate health information," Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center in New York City, said in a statement.

Aetna issued a statement responding to the allegations, saying, "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."