February 15, 2017

Georgia Improves on Craft Beer and Cavities

Georgia Report

What should be the priority for state legislators—helping their poorest constituents avoid pain and suffering, or protecting the financial status of their most affluent constituents? In the case of Georgia lawmakers, the answer has traditionally been to take care of the wealthy.

There is a state law that says dental hygienists cannot provide basic services such as teeth cleanings in settings like school clinics and nursing homes unless a dentist is present to provide “direct supervision.” Georgia is one of only three states—Alabama and Mississippi are the others—that still make it illegal for hygienists to do this. Thousands of low-income Georgians will suffer from tooth decay and gum diseases because they can’t afford to go to the dentist.

Sam Whitehead of GPB filed a compelling report on how the law affects Turner County Elementary School, located in the south Georgia town of Ashburn where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. A free dental clinic was set up at the elementary school that is equipped with dental chairs and related medical equipment. It is intended to help kids who couldn’t afford a trip to the dentist. But no children have been treated at the clinic because there aren’t many dentists in that part of the state, and the law makes it illegal for hygienists to provide these services unless a dentist is physically on site.

Why is such an absurd statute allowed to remain on the books? Because dentists, like doctors, are a powerful group of professionals who can afford to have lobbyists represent them at the capitol.  There are some dentists who don’t want to see their revenue streams threatened by these safety-net clinics that provide free dental care for poor people, so their lobbyists have worked hard to keep the state law from being amended.

That situation appears to be changing this year. Bills that would repeal the requirement for “direct supervision” were introduced in both chambers and are making their way through the legislative process.  The House and Senate both voted last week to approve their versions of the bill.

Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville), a legislator who is also a dentist, is one of the sponsors of the House bill. "All in all, if it helps more children access dental care, then we have done a good day’s work," Hawkins said.

Speaking of prohibition, our state is also in last place in an entirely different category. Georgia and Mississippi are the last two states that still make it illegal for craft brewers and local distillers to sell their products directly to customers. This law is a holdover from the prohibition era, and like the prohibitions against dental hygienists, it looks the state may finally get rid of it.

The protected class in this case are the wholesalers. They don’t produce beer and distilled spirits at the manufacturing end, and they don’t sell it to customers on the retail end. Craft brewers and distillers, however, are required to sell their products to wholesalers, who turn around and sell it to package stores. Wholesalers extract a fee for serving as the middleman between the producers and the sellers, and this fee is passed along to consumers.

This system has been in place for a long time, but some of the younger legislators have been asking why the law should be interfering with how brewers sell their beer. Bills allowing retail sales by local brewers and distillers are making their way through the system during this session, and it looks like they might pass.  

Georgia may be able to climb out of last place on this issue as well.