The announcement came on Wednesday from the plaintiffs’ attorneys: Aetna (the third largest health insurance company in the U.S.) has agreed to pay over $17 million in a federal class action lawsuit filed against them. The suit came in response to a faulty mailing from the company that breached the HIV privacy of thousands of Aetna’s customers about six months ago.
In July 2017, Aetna mailed out thousands of 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,” read a statement by Legal Action Center, part of the plaintiffs’ attorney team. (Legal Action Center’s mission is to fight discrimination against and protect the privacy rights of people with histories of addiction, HIV/AIDS, or criminal records.)
The court papers alleged that Aetna improperly transmitted to its legal counsel and a mail vendor the names of 13,487 customers who had been prescribed HIV medications — 11,875 of whom were sent the large transparent window envelopes that revealed confidential HIV-related information.
The proposed settlement of $17,161,200 that Aetna has agreed to pay is now pending the court’s approval. Though it is certainly a handsome settlement, most class members will receive only about $75 to $500 each, depending on their specific circumstances — however, they can seek additional monetary relief by filing a claim form that documents financial or non-financial harm.
The plaintiffs included thousands of people taking medication to treat HIV, but also those who, like lead plaintiff “Andrew Beckett,” take PrEP, the pre-exposure prophylactic that prevents HIV transmission. Beckett (whose pseudonym derives from the HIV-positive character portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 1993 film, Philadelphia) 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,” said Beckett.
The settlement also includes the implementation of a new “best practices” policy for Aetna to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, as well as providing for attorneys’ fees and expenses.