Although a large body of epidemiologic evidence suggests that low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol are strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), no large-scale clinical trials focusing on this association have been reported. This report describes the rationale and design of the Department of Veterans Affairs HDL Intervention Trial (HIT), a multicenter, randomized, controlled clinical trial designed to determine whether lipid therapy reduces the combined incidence of CAD death and nonfatal myocardial infarction in men with established CAD who have low levels of HDL cholesterol with "desirable" levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Twenty-five hundred men with CAD and HDL cholesterol < or = 40 mg/dl, LDL cholesterol < or = 140 mg/dl, and triglycerides < or = 300 mg/dl are being recruited at 20 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers, randomized to either gemfibrozil or placebo, and followed in a double-blind manner for an average of 6 years. In this population, gemfibrozil is expected to increase HDL cholesterol by 10 to 15%, have a negligible effect on LDL cholesterol, and lower triglycerides by 30 to 40%. Because an estimated 20 to 30% of patients with CAD have a low HDL cholesterol as their primary lipid abnormality, the results of this trial are expected to have far-reaching clinical implications.