by Bob Roehr
AIDS physician and political activist R. Scott Hitt died at the age of 49 on Nov. 8, at his home in West Hollywood. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and fought the disease that ultimately took his life.
“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 advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He worked in Washington as a lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign and as executive director of AIDS Action when Hitt chaired PACHA.
Hitt was a Tucson native and a child prodigy, completing high school at the age of 16 and entering medical school at 20. He came out at the age of 21.
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.
With his tall, classic California good looks, intelligence, and winning manner, 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 (ANGLE) 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 Hitt’s living room. That landmark event opened checkbooks and generated volunteer support that contributed to helping save Clinton’s political life.
President Clinton created the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in 1995 and named 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 a critical corner would finally be turned in treating the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.
As chairman, 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 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.
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 the political courage to do the right thing at the time.
Hitt was a driving force behind establishment of the American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIVM) in 2000. That organization trains and certifies healthcare workers as specialists in treating HIV.
AAHIVM board chairman Jeffrey Schouten called 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 a friend and he will be missed,” said H. Alexander Robinson, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition. He served with 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. 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. He really, truly led by example.”
He is survived by his partner of 27 years, Alex Koleszar.