Mix-up breaches confidentiality of dozens in state AIDS program
A clerical error results in enrollees receiving one another's
letters. Officials vow changes.
By Mary Engel, Times Staff Writer
March 3, 2007
The state Department of Health Services inadvertently revealed
the names and addresses of up to 53 Californians enrolled in an
AIDS drug assistance program to other enrollees by putting
benefit notification letters in the wrong envelopes, officials
The letters went out Tuesday to recipients in 16 counties,
including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego. The
department learned about the mix-up after 12 people in the drug
assistance program phoned to say they had received letters
addressed to someone else, said health services Director Sandra
"The department is committed to a no excuses, zero-tolerance
policy regarding the release of sensitive, personal and
confidential information," Shewry said. "We take this
The breach of confidentiality is particularly sensitive after
the state Legislature's decision last year to change from an HIV
tracking system based on alphanumeric codes to one based on
patient names. California had been slow to make the change
because of fears that it would compromise patient privacy and
Proponents defended the name system by arguing that AIDS, which
can take a decade or more to develop after HIV infection, had
long been tracked in a confidential database of names.
HIV/AIDS services and advocacy groups said this was the first
known breach of that database.
"I would hope this is an anomaly," said Jeff Bailey, director of
client services for AIDS Project Los Angeles. "I would not want
to give way to panic about this release. It did not go to random
citizens of the state, where this information might be shared
with someone outside the HIV and AIDS circle."
Lori Yeghiayan, spokeswoman for AIDS Healthcare Foundation,
called the breach an "unfortunate error," but not a sign of a
"From my understanding, it was an individual's error and the
individual has been removed," she said.
Shewry said that it appeared that a newly hired clerk thought
the letters were form letters and did not realize that each was
personally addressed. The clerk put the 54 letters into
envelopes and then affixed 54 preprinted mailing labels. The
clerk has been reassigned pending completion of the
investigation, Shewry said.
"We are investigating and interviewing all the employees who are
involved in the chain of command," she said. "This is not how we
do business, and we don't intend to have this be the way we do
The letters went to clients enrolled in the California AIDS Drug
Assistance Program who are eligible for the Medicare Part D
Premium Payment Program. In addition to names and addresses, the
letters included Medicare Part D plan names and premium payment
amounts but no Social Security numbers, medical record numbers
or other confidential information, Shewry said.
People who received misaddressed letters began contacting the
department Wednesday, said Kevin Reilly, director of prevention
services. The callers were mostly concerned about whether they
had been approved for benefits, Reilly said.
At least one letter wound up in the right envelope; that person
called with a separate question about benefits.
The department on Friday mailed certified letters to the 54
enrollees, explaining the mix-up and asking that anyone who
received a wrongly addressed letter destroy it. It also notified
the California Highway Patrol, as is required by a state law on
The department is looking into ways to make the system more
foolproof, such as using envelopes with window addresses, said