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Aetna Reaches Settlements with State AGs Over HIPAA Violations

Health insurer Aetna has reached settlements with state attorney generals over HIPAA violations resulting from mailings to HIV/AIDS and cardiac patients.

HIPAA violations

Source: Thinkstock

By Fred Donovan

- Health insurer Aetna has reached settlements with a number of state attorney generals over HIPAA violations resulting from mailings to HIV/AIDS and cardiac patients, the New Jersey attorney general announced Oct. 10.

The three states and district involved in the Aetna settlements are Connecticut, the District of Columbia (DC), New Jersey, and Washington. Aetna agreed to pay Connecticut around $100,000, DC around $175,000, and New Jersey $365,000. Washington has not yet disclosed how much it will receive from Aetna.

As part of the settlements, Aetna has agreed to implement policy, protocol, and training reforms designed to safeguard individuals’ PHI and ensure the confidentiality of mailings containing that information. The company has also agreed to hire an independent consultant to evaluate and report on its privacy protection practices and to monitor its compliance with the settlements’ terms.

“Companies entrusted with individuals’ protected health information have a duty to avoid improper disclosures,” said NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “Aetna fell short here, potentially subjecting thousands of individuals to the stigma and discrimination that, unfortunately, still may accompany disclosure of their HIV/AIDS status. I am pleased that our investigation has led Aetna to adopt measures to prevent this from happening again.”

The investigation revealed that Aetna disclosed HIV/AIDS-related information on about 12,000 individuals through a third-party mailing on July 28, 2017. The envelopes used in the mailing had a transparent address window, which revealed recipients’ names, addresses, and text that included the words “HIV medications.”

The second breach occurred in September 2017 and involved a mailing sent to 1,600 individuals about a study of patients with atrial fibrilation (AFib). The envelopes for the mailing included the name and logo for the study, IMPACT AFib, which could have been interpreted as indicating that the addressee had an AFib diagnosis.

DC Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement: “Aetna failed to protect the health information of District residents and illegally disclosed their HIV status. Every patient should feel confident that their insurance company or health provider will safeguard their confidential medical information. Today’s action will prevent further disclosures and warns other insurance companies that they are responsible for protecting consumers’ private information.”

The three states and DC alleged that Aetna not only violated HIPAA but also state laws pertaining to the PHI of individuals in general and of persons with AIDS or HIV infection in particular.

In January 2018, Aetna settled a class action lawsuit that required it to pay $17 million in relief to the 12,000 individuals regarding the HIV mailing.

Lead plaintiff Andrew Beckett, which is a pseudonym, alleged in his original complaint that PHI and confidential HIV-related information “was disclosed improperly by Aetna and/or Aetna-related or affiliated entities, or on their behalf, to third parties, including, without limitation, Aetna’s legal counsel and a settlement administrator, and through a subsequent mailing of written notices that were required to be sent as part of a settlement of legal claims that had been filed against certain Aetna-related entities or affiliates.”

The letters from Aetna had originally been sent in response to a settlement over previous data privacy violation worry. The healthcare company had been sued in two separate class-action lawsuits in 2014 and 2015.

“Those lawsuits alleged that Aetna jeopardized the privacy of people taking HIV medications by requiring its insureds to receive their HIV medications through mail and not allowing them to pick up their medications in person at the pharmacy,” according to the 2017 lawsuit.

In response to the January 2018 lawsuit settlement, Aetna said that it is “implementing measures designed to ensure something like this does not happen again as part of our commitment to best practices in protecting sensitive health information.”

“Through our outreach efforts, immediate relief program and this settlement we have worked to address the potential impact to members following this unfortunate incident,” Aetna said in a statement.

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