A lawsuit was filed against Gilead Sciences on Thursday claiming Gilead violated HIV drug patients’ privacy by mailing them inappropriately marked envelopes.
Gilead sent a mass mailing in April to patients taking its HIV medications Truvada and Descovy. The envelopes were allegedly marked with privacy-compromising information.
An Alabama man was “mortified” by an envelope marked “HIV Prevention Team” mailed to his workplace, according to the AIDS Law Project’s Ronda Goldfein.
The lawsuit is a federal class action lawsuit against Gilead, filed by the AIDS Law Project. The lawsuit claims that Gilead’s mailing illegally violated the patients’ privacy after the patients had been promised confidentiality. The lawsuit demands that Gilead immediately cease mailing letters to patients and seeks monetary damages.
“We regret that the envelope caused any concerns, and we apologize to anyone affected,” Gilead said a statement. “However, we deny the assertions in the complaint and will file our response in a timely manner.”
“On discovering that an envelope template usually used for communications with health-care professionals was inadvertently used for the consumer mailer in question, we took immediate action to address it, including to discontinue the use of this particular envelope,” the company added.
Health insurer Aetna made a similar error in 2017 when they sent out mailings to HIV patients with patient status information easily visible through the envelopes’ clear windows. A class action lawsuit resulted from this and Aetna settled it for $17.2 million.
Gilead’s error, in light of Aetna’s similar mistakes, was “completely dumb,” according to Goldfein.
“After the Aetna case you’d think if you were an entity that holds confidential information, you’d redouble all your efforts to prevent careless mistakes,” she said.
The mailing was sent to people in Gilead’s patient assistance program. This gave the patients a discount on the medications, which are used to reduce HIV infection risk.
“It’s a great program,” Goldfein said. “But people didn’t realize that by accepting the discount it provides they’d be putting their privacy at risk.”
“In the Aetna case we saw some immediate direct harm to patients,” she said. “It impacted their families, their housing and their jobs. It created a lot of anxiety for fear of who now had access to their confidential information.
“Those folks now are terrified when the mail comes,” she added.
Truvada is currently being tested in a clinical trial in Spain to see if it can prevent COVID-19 infection.