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R. Scott Hitt, 49; activist, Clinton advisor on AIDS

November 10, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

R. Scott Hitt, a specialist on AIDS and HIV who was the first openly gay person to head a presidential advisory council, died of metastatic colon cancer Thursday in West Hollywood. He was 49.

Hitt was a Democratic activist and highly regarded Los Angeles physician when President Clinton named him chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in 1996.

The council moved swiftly under his leadership. Within the first six weeks it outlined eight actions that the White House should take immediately to address the AIDS crisis.

Clinton promptly adopted all eight ideas, including a White House conference on the disease.

Hitt "took the fight against AIDS to a whole new level," said David Mixner, a veteran activist and political strategist who was a co-founder with Hitt of Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a Los Angeles-based political organization.

"As the epidemic changed," Mixner said, "he was one of the leaders who insisted on changing the face of the fight against AIDS to include people of color. That was one of his greatest contributions."

Colleagues said Hitt did not hesitate to criticize Clinton's positions on AIDS if he believed they were wrong. In 1998, controversy flared over a 9-year-old ban on federal financing of programs to distribute clean needles to drug addicts. Despite strenuous lobbying by public health experts and advocates for people with AIDS who argued that needle exchange programs would help halt the transmission of the disease, the Clinton administration declined to lift the ban, saying it would send the wrong message to the nation's youth.

"At best, this is hypocrisy. At worst, it's a lie. And no matter what, it's immoral," Hitt said at the time.

Hitt headed the advisory council while maintaining a private practice at Pacific Oaks Medical Group in Beverly Hills, one of the country's largest HIV/AIDS medical providers. He also served on the boards of such groups as AIDS Project Los Angeles, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

A Tucson native, he graduated from high school at the age of 16 and started medical school at 20. He earned his medical degree from the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1983.

Hitt became involved in politics in the late 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay community. "Like most of us," said West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, a friend of 20 years, "he was very angry about federal inaction. He was trying to treat people with this new disease and getting no response from the government."

With Mixner, Duran and others, Hitt launched Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1989 to take political action on AIDS and other issues and to raise funds for candidates.

"We met with Bill and Hillary Clinton in Scott's living room in 1991," Duran said.

Hitt is credited with helping deliver thousands of votes for the Arkansas Democrat, who promised vigorous action to find a cure for AIDS and provide quality care for those with the disease.

In 1999, Hitt was diagnosed with colon cancer and told that his chances of recovery were slim. "My life fell apart," he told The Times in 2002, when he was accused of having molested two male patients in his medical office in 2000.

He said in the interview that he did "things I regret" and attributed his actions to the stress of dealing with the cancer, which required three surgeries in 45 days as well as chemotherapy.

After the incidents were reported to his medical partners, he stopped seeing patients and sought treatment for his problems. In early 2004 the Medical Board of California suspended his license for 60 days and placed him on seven years' probation, which required that he enroll in ethics courses and have a chaperon present when seeing patients.

Later that year, however, Hitt surrendered his license. He said he gave up his license because his cancer had returned, but the board said it was because he had been arrested in May 2004 on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance. The board did not indicate what the substance was or whether Hitt was ever formally charged.

Hitt spent his last years working for gay marriage and other issues as a member of the board of the civil rights group Equality California. He founded the American Academy of HIV Medicine, which created the first credentialing program for HIV care providers.

He also founded the R. Scott Hitt Foundation to encourage future gay and lesbian leaders through training in political organizing, fundraising, parliamentary procedures and other skills. Duran, a foundation board member, said the group expects to fund several internships for college students at community organizations in the coming year.

Hitt is survived by his partner of 27 years, Alex Koleszar; and two sisters, Alana Hoffmann and Heather Martin.

Memorial donations may be sent to the R. Scott Hitt Foundation, 520 S. Grand Ave., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90071-2665.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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