Patient Hits Aetna With Privacy Class Action Over Letters

By Christopher Crosby

Law360, New York (September 26, 2017, 8:18 PM EDT) -- A California patient slapped Aetna Inc. with a proposed class action in federal court Monday over confidential HIV-related medical records the company allegedly exposed when it mailed medical information in envelopes with a large, clear plastic front.

The John Doe patient accused the Connecticut-based company of sending information about pharmacy benefits pertaining to the plaintiff's HIV medications in an envelope with a large glassine window, resulting in the disclosure of the plaintiff's name, medical diagnosis, HIV medications, and other insurance and billing information.

The suit is at least the second federal lawsuit in California and one of many that have appeared since the company disclosed that it mailed roughly 12,000 individuals HIV information in letters with a large front window earlier this summer.

Instead of taking reasonable precautions, such as reformatting its letters or using envelopes with smaller transparent windows, the patient said Aetna recklessly disclosed private medical information, in violation of California's Confidentiality of Medical Information Act.

"People living with HIV and AIDS face extreme stigma and discrimination; and to ensure that people feel safe to come forward and be tested and treated for HIV, the majority states have enacted laws that protect the confidentiality of a person's HIV-related information," the complaint said.

The lawsuit is the latest action in a series of complaints that have popped up in the wake of the company's disclosure.

In August, California and Pennsylvania policyholders sued Aetna after advocates revealed that patients had received the envelopes on Aug. 24. In the Pennsylvania lawsuit, the policyholders alleged Aetna's practice of sending the letters resulted from its attempts to resolve two prior lawsuits in which it agreed to send people letters informing them that they could pick up medication in stores, rather than only receiving it by mail.

After the letter was sent in July, the California patient said Aetna issued a follow-up notice in August revealing that the privacy breach had occurred.

The episode caused the patient shock and embarrassment, resulting in increased stress, humiliation and anxiety, the suit states.

The patient is seeking to represent any HIV patients in California to whom Aetna mailed information about their medications using envelopes with glassine windows in the past four years. Alongside damages, the patient is seeking injunctive relief forcing the company to change its practices, as well as attorneys' fees.

In addition to violating California's medical records act, the lawsuit accuses Aetna of negligence and violating the state's unfair competition law. The patient argued they would never have done business with the company had it disclosed how it stored and communicated medical information.

The patient's attorney, Abbas Kazerounian, told Law360 in an email Tuesday evening that he was sad for his clients and "hope to be able to protect their rights moving forward."

A spokesperson for Aetna declined to comment.

Counsel information for Aetna was not immediately available.

The patient is represented by Abbas Kazerounian and Mona Amini of Kazerounian Law Group APC. Counsel information for Aetna was not immediately available.

The case is Doe v. Aetna, Inc. number 3:17-cv-01947 in U.S. District Court for Southern California.

--Editing by Catherine Sum.