Aetna headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut Aetna headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut

 

Medical insurance company Aetna Inc. faces a growing legal predicament over claims that it violated the privacy of patients taking medications for HIV. The company was hit with a suit in Superior Court in Essex County on Oct. 20 in connection with a mass mailing that allegedly violated the privacy of recipients.

The New Jersey suit follows three potential class actions over the same mailings that have been filed against Aetna in federal courts around the country—on Oct. 12 in Hartford, on Sept. 25 in San Diego, and on Aug. 28 in Philadelphia. But the New Jersey case, filed on behalf of two unnamed plaintiffs, is not a class action.

The suits concern letters sent by Aetna to 12,000 insureds in envelopes with large glassine windows, revealing the recipient’s name and address and indicating that the mailing concerned the recipient’s HIV medications.

The company’s dilemma is made worse by the fact that the letters in question were sent out as part of the settlement of prior lawsuits claiming the company breached the privacy of patients using HIV medications.

In 2014 and 2015, Aetna was sued in two other potential class actions, Doe v. Aetna in the Southern District of California and Doe v. Coventry Health Care in the Southern District of Florida. In both cases, Aetna was accused of violating the rights of people who take HIV medication by requiring them to have their drugs delivered to their homes, instead of picking them up at a pharmacy. The cases were settled on an individual basis and class status was not certified in either case. The letters that are the subject of the latest litigation were sent to Aetna insureds around July 28 to announce terms of the settlement.

The New Jersey suit is brought under the state AIDS Assistance Act, which requires health care providers to protect the privacy of people with HIV and AIDS. The act also creates a private cause of action for individuals who are subject to violation under the act, and allows courts to award punitive damages for “wantonly reckless conduct” by the party that commits the violation.

“Despite the fact that the first AIDS case was identified 40 years ago, people living with HIV and AIDS still face extreme stigma,” the suit claims.

The plaintiffs in the New Jersey case say that when they received the letters, they were not deposited in their mailbox but were left on their front porch. The plaintiffs said the letters were deposited on their porch after they were apparently delivered in error to one of their neighbors. The letters were discovered by the mother of one of the plaintiffs, who was not aware until then that the plaintiffs were taking HIV medication, the suit said. The discovery “has caused terrible problems and difficulty in the plaintiffs’ household,” the suit claims.

The mailings placed one of the plaintiffs in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to family members that he was living with HIV. The other plaintiff was forced to explain that he was not living with HIV but was taking the medication as part of a regimen of pre-exposure prophylaxis, the suit said.

“These questions led to further embarrassing and invasive discussions on why plaintiffs need to protect themselves, which activities put themselves at risk and other topics of an intimate nature. These conversations have changed the nature of the plaintiffs’ family relationship to one another and within their household,” the suit said.

Lani Dornfeld, Edward Capozzi and Dennis Shlionsky of Brach Eichler in Roseland represent the plaintiffs in the New Jersey case.

“It’s kind of crazy—they were settling one privacy-related lawsuit related to HIV when this happened. It is surprising, at the least, that Aetna would not take care in sending this,” said Dornfeld.

An Aetna spokesman, T.J. Crawford, said the company would not comment on the litigation.