The next day Aetna is slapped with a Federal Class Action Lawsuit and will be held accountable for their actions.
Days after news broke of leading healthcare company, Aetna, apparently violating the law and mailing 12,000 letters that revealed an HIV diagnosis due to the envelope address window not protecting the privacy of the letter contents properly, I sent an email to the two public relations and media contacts at Aetna requesting a on-camera recorded video interview with the highest executive knowledgeable about their “mistake” and their action plans to fix it, prevent it from ever happening again, and how they intend on helping those affected.
Aetna responded and declined the interview.
My email request for the interview included an introduction of me and this HIV publication, a reasoning as to why I was requesting the interview, and a promise that the interview would be civil and a good start to their response by opening a direct line of communication with the HIV community–one that is notably one of the most fierce and vocal when advocating for our health condition.
I wrote in the first email invitation:
“We all can agree that the situation with the HIV & PrEP letters was a disaster and the missteps after taken will be evaluated by the crisis management experts for years. My email is not about that fallout. Rather it is to open a direct line of communication between Aetna and the HIV community on turf that will resonate and be heard.
I am wanting to interview the highest executive available about the incident, and what you all are doing to attempt to correct this action, to reassure the community that our privacy remains paramount to you all, and to explain what happens next.
I am not requesting a statement or press release. I am specifically asking for a face of the company, that has the best knowledge of the situation and actions, to join me on camera for a recorded video interview that I will release.
My critique is harsh and fair, but my support also comes at a time that it is needed and warranted without hesitation.”
The next day, it was the weekend, I received the first reply from Aetna’s communication team, and I was taken aback by their response: “While we appreciate the invite, our senior leaders are focusing their time and energy on helping those affected and ensuring that a mistake like this never happens again.”
As much as I am appreciative of their response at all, I am dumbfounded by their legal approach to their crisis management style generally, and a little taken aback by their choices this time. But although I disagree, I can understand their position.I just think Aetna is pretty weak for not speaking directly to the community by declining an interview.
I also had asked followers on social media to provide questions that they desired to be asked of the executive from Aetna, should they accept the video interview request with the #HIVscoop.
And I am not the only one. I spoke to two high level communication executives with other large health companies confidentially and both expressed dismay at Aetna not speaking to me–someone respected within the HIV community that can help spread the word about assistance being provided by Aetna to those affected, as well as the opportunity to speak to the HIV community generally.
“That is frankly, crazy,” says one communication executive with a large healthcare company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is just bad PR on their part to not want to talk, and their legal department could point to this interview as a documented action of community outreach when the board is determining the fines they will pay.”
I followed up with their initial decline by again confirming that nobody was available to speak to the HIV community about their response even.
And I immediately received an email from the same PR contact from Aetna, “That’s correct – we won’t be able to accommodate the interview request.”
So that is that.
On Monday, August 28, 2017, The Legal Action Center, AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, and Berger & Montague, P.C. filed a federal class action lawsuit against Aetna for breaching HIV privacy of 12,000 customers the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, contends that the insurer’s mailing violated several laws by revealing highly confidential HIV information of approximately 12,000 customers in at least 23 states.
According to the news article released on Legal Action Center’s website, their legal director, Sally Friedman, said that “Aetna’s unprecedented HIV privacy breach has caused turmoil in people’s lives. Some have lost housing, and others have been shunned by loved ones because of the enormous stigma that HIV still carries. This case seeks justice for these individuals. Insurers like Aetna must be held accountable when they fail to vigorously protect people’s most private health information.”
I provided the email exchange, invitation, and repeated declines from Aetna about an interview and opportunity to speak directly to the community affected by the action to the legal team that is taking Aetna to court.
Ironically, the letters mailed by Aetna were in response to legal action previously filed against them in 2014 and 2015 and action required as part of the settlement requiring them to no longer mandate customers order HIV medications through mail order pharmacies.
The new class action lawsuit lists the pseudonym Andrew Beckett, as the lead complainant–an obvious and symbolic tip to the character in the film Philadelphia.
Penalties for HIPAA violations are costly, and this case could place the liability on Aetna at an unprecedented amount.
Thankfully, we have these groups that are holding this insurance provider accountable for their actions and complete disregard for people living with HIV and individuals taking PrEP to reduce their risk of infection.
Those affected by Aetna’s privacy breach should contact the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania (215-587-9377). Additional information about this lawsuit is available at www.aidslawpa.org.