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Patients & Politics: Dr. Lee Hawkins

lee hawkinsDr. Lee Hawkins began his career as a dentist in Gainesville, Georgia. After decades of
practice, he began to also focus on the Georgia state legislature. “I chose to be with my family first, my patients second, and politics third,” says Hawkins when asked about his transition into the political arena. Although Hawkins has always been considering public service for public service, growing up in a political family, he has clearly modeled his career on his three priorities.

Hawkins credits his family dentists, Drs. Ben Hampton and Robert Jennings, as his greatest influence towards dentistry. “I had always thought of medicine until I found out that our neighbor, who was our family physician—and my idol—had less time with his family compared to our dentist,” Hawkins recalls.

Organized Dentistry

After graduating from Emory University Dental School in 1978, Hawkins rented
office space in Gainesville from Dr. Ed Burnett. Burnett was a classmate of Dr. Don Johnson, who was greatly involved with organized dentistry and later served as president of both the GDA and the International College of Dentists. An active member himself, Burnett introduced Hawkins to the Georgia Dental Association in a Hall County district meeting. “I have been a member ever since,” says Hawkins.

In fact, Hawkins has served in a number of leadership roles that demonstrated his interest in legislative affairs. In the late 80s and early 90s, Hawkins served on an emerging ADA PAC Committee, a board still small enough its entire membership could meet for drinks in a hotel room. Hawkins also served as GDA’s Legislative Chairman from 1990–1992, and later served as GDA’s Secretary/Treasurer for five years, and finally as President in 2003–04. Hawkins was also Chairman of the ADA Delegation
until his State Senate campaign in 2006.

“I was given the opportunity by my colleagues to serve in various leadership positions. I have always been very proud of their support,” Hawkins says.

Politics

To some extent, Hawkins’ political aspirations are perhaps inherited. His father was Chairman of the Veterans Board under four governors, where he served 24 years in addition to other political positions, and Hawkins frequently met senators, congressmen, and governors. In addition, Hawkins received important advice from his father: “My father always told me that if I wanted to make an impact on the decisions involving our profession or medical health care, it could be best accomplished as a legislator.”

However, Hawkins also noted that his father’s work is a significant reason he waited to get involved in politics. He shares, “The time I lost from my father not being at home was not something I wanted to lose with my children.” Dr. Charlie Norwood, an Augusta dentist who served as Representative of Georgia’s 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, had asked Hawkins to run for office for some time, calling every few years. “I told him I wouldn’t run until my youngest child went to college,” Hawkins says, further emphasizing his commitment to his family.

In 2006, Hawkins was elected to the Georgia State Senate for two terms. He was out for two years after the congressional race in 2010, and is now finishing his third term in the Georgia State House of Representatives. In both chambers, Hawkins has been active: in the senate, he chaired state and local government operations (2009–2010), and in the House he served as Vice Chairman of Health and Human Services, Vice Chairman of Banks and Banking, and also serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health.

Even now that his children have grown, Hawkins acknowledges the demanding nature of life as a legislator. He is currently selling his practice to Ben, his son, and still plans to see patients on a limited basis, but now wants to dedicate more time to his public service. “It’s very hard to serve at high levels in the legislative branch and still have a full practice. I feel like with this transition, I can be much more effective.”

Dentistry Influence

Hawkins values his experience as a dentist and the contributions it has made to his political perspective. “Practicing dentistry has given me an understanding of how legislation affects healthcare treatment,” he explains. “Often, it becomes an obstacle, rather than providing the intended result. Adding more legislation doesn’t always equate to more or better healthcare delivery or outcomes.”

Additionally, Hawkins feels strongly about encouraging dentists and physicians to seek political office. “We need more voices who have actually provided healthcare through patient care,” he says. “Working in the insurance and medical device industries are parts of healthcare, but nothing equals the amount of knowledge gained by patient contact.”

Even if dentists aren’t interested in running, they can help educate legislators on the importance of oral health. Hawkins advises, “Get to know your legislators personally. Talk to them out of session. Become a known entity to them and create a friendship— hat friendship, knowledge and trust is irreplaceable, especially when issues come very quickly and are so vitally important to providing healthcare.”

Healthcare Policy

In what may seem to non-practitioners as a contradiction, Hawkins considers some of his greatest accomplishments as the legislation that did not pass. “Much of my work has been in preventing bad legislation that would inhibit free access of patients to the providers of their choice,” he says. He also is proud of the legislation that moved Georgia’s Board of Dentistry under the Department of Community Health, which he feels has enabled them to better fulfill their charge of protecting the public.

According to Hawkins, one of the biggest challenges facing healthcare for our state and nation is cost. “Healthcare financing is an immediate problem Americans must face,” Hawkins says. “We need to look back about ten years ago, when healthcare was more affordable and accessible, and re-establish those delivery and financing methods. The present system of more government and third-party involvement is obviously not the solution.”

Personal Life

Hawkins lives in Gainesville, GA with his wife Sharon. Together, they have seven children, Ben, Jim, Charlie, Elizabeth, Nora, Michelle and Meredith. They are also the proud grandparents of eight grandchildren.

Although Hawkins’ keeps himself incredibly busy with out-of-session meetings, researching important issues, and learning about upcoming legislation—as well as practicing dentistry, he enjoys trout fishing and golf. However, spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren remain his favorite pastime.

Looking Ahead

For now, Hawkins plans to continue his political career, largely because he considers healthcare a major unsolved issue for all Americans. “Persistence has been the key to my longevity in the political world,” he says. And in 2018, Hawkins plans to continue to move his legislation addressing high speed internet, which he feels is a promising future for access in rural communities. He also continues to advocate for patients by looking at upcoming legislation that enables greater access to the healthcare market.

In addition, Hawkins has worked closely with GDA Executive Director Frank. J. Capaldo and Scott Lofranco, GDA’s Director of Government Affairs and has been instrumental in helping the GDA accomplish its legislative initiatives. He values his relationship with the GDA, and spoke directly to members: “I truly appreciate the continued support of the dentists of Georgia. Your support has greatly benefited my position in the legislature, and I am most proud of being a part of a profession and the wonderful colleagues that I share it with.”

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“I do not give up or compromise on issues that involve serving my family, my patients, or my constituents,” Hawkins says. For over a decade, Georgia dentists have been fortunate to have a colleague advocating for their patients and profession in the state legislature. In years to come, they can expect Hawkins to aspire to these words, shared as some he strives to live by: “Always do the right thing. Building on that principle gives a solid foundation for whatever we do in life.”
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