AIDS physician, activist Scott Hitt dies

  • by Bob Roehr
  • Wednesday November 14, 2007
Share this Post:
Dr. R. Scott Hitt at a March 1998 news conference. Photo:<br>Bob Roehr
Dr. R. Scott Hitt at a March 1998 news conference. Photo:
Bob Roehr

AIDS physician and political activist Dr. R. Scott Hitt died Thursday, November 8 at his home in West Hollywood, California. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and had fought the disease that ultimately took his life. He was 49.

The Tucson native was a bit of a child prodigy, completing high school at the age of 16 and entering medical school at 20. Throughout much of this time he held a dark secret – for years, starting before puberty, he was molested by his stepfather. Dr. Hitt came out as gay at the age of 21 and with that step began to take greater control of his own life.

He began practicing medicine in 1983, just as the full force of AIDS was becoming apparent. He was a member of the Pacific Oaks Medical Group in Beverly Hills, one of the largest private HIV practices in the country.

Over the ensuing years, Dr. Hitt quickly became a leader in the medical and political fight against HIV.

He was one of the founders of Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1989. The group of Los Angeles gay powerbrokers included political consultant David Mixner and attorney John Duran, who would go on to become mayor of West Hollywood. The group raised prodigious sums of political money to advance gay and AIDS issues.

Bill Clinton, then a struggling candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, won the support of the Los Angeles gay community at a 1991 meeting in Dr. Hitt's living room. That landmark event opened checkbooks and generated volunteer support that contributed to saving Clinton's political life.

President Clinton created the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in 1995 and named Dr. Hitt as its first chairman. He served until 2000 while continuing to practice medicine. It was the first time that an openly gay man led a presidential advisory body.

Death permeated the air when PACHA first met. Protease inhibitors had not yet become a standard part of therapy and it would be several years before people came to accept that the corner had finally been turned in treating the AIDS epidemic in this country.

As chairman, Dr. Hitt faced competing pressures from the gay and AIDS communities and the Clinton administration. The president often was reluctant to take on controversial aspects of fighting HIV that PACHA recommended, such as frank talk on sexual transmission of the virus, and support for needle exchange programs that would reduce transmission among injection drug users sharing needles.

Often Dr. Hitt was the glue that held the council together. His heart was in the streets but his head realized that too strident an approach would only alienate the president. He sought to craft PACHA's recommendations to avoid inflammatory rhetoric and hit that sweet spot where they would be effective. But he never backed down from stating his views.

It all came to a head in April 1998 when the Clinton administration followed PACHA's recommendation and officially lifted the ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs, yet at the same time it declared that it would not fund those programs.

Dr. Hitt's response was pointed. "At best this is hypocrisy, at worst, it's a lie. And no matter what, it's immoral."

Clinton later acknowledged after leaving office that he had made the wrong decision on needle exchange, He wished he had had the political courage to do the right thing.

Dr. Hitt was a driving force behind establishment of the American Academy of HIV Medicine in 2000. That organization trains and certifies healthcare workers as specialists in treating HIV.

AAHIVM board chairman Jeffrey Schouten called Dr. Hitt "a visionary with the energy and political savvy to realize his visions. ... Throughout his career he worked tirelessly to improve the quality of and access to care for all HIV/AIDS patients in this country."

"Scott was among the first and best rapid responders to AIDS. He took down walls dividing patients from their doctors and from their elected leaders all the way to the White House. In doing so Scott helped spark a revolution in patient advocacy and patient rights which spread beyond HIV/AIDS and far beyond our borders," said Daniel Zingale.

Zingale, a California native, is a senior adviser to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He worked in Washington as a lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign and as executive director of AIDS Action when Dr. Hitt chaired PACHA.

"Scott was a friend and he will be missed," said H. Alexander Robinson, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition. He served with Dr. Hitt on PACHA.

"During the time we served together on the council, Scott supported our efforts to ensure that the voices of African Americans living with HIV and AIDS were heard," Robinson added. "He was always quick to make sure that the council's decisions and recommendations to the president reflected the broadest of perspectives.

"By far the most challenging issue we dealt with during my time of PACHA was the issue of needle exchange and other HIV prevention strategies. Here, too, Scott was an advocate," said Robinson.

"When I first joined President Clinton's AIDS council, my expectations of both the commission and Scott were low. I thought, President Clinton has given a nice title to a well-connected, good-looking Hollywood doc," said Ben Schatz. Schatz was executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association at the time, and has since gone on to become a dragapella diva with the outrageously entertaining group the Kinsey Sicks.

"I have to say, Scott amazed, really amazed me with his relentless hard work, his fierce commitment to fighting for what was right, and his complete willingness to take on the Clinton administration," Schatz added. "He really, truly led by example."

Dr. Hitt is survived by his partner of 27 years, Alex Koleszar.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, December 1, World AIDS Day, at 3 p.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, 7501 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA.