‘I wasn’t sure a day would come when there’d be a vote,’ widower Peter DeMarco says after ‘Laura’s law’ passes in Senate despite COVID-19 pandemic

Twenty-twenty turned out to be the year of dreams deferred. That’s no less true on

Twenty-twenty turned out to be the year of dreams deferred. That’s no less true on Beacon Hill.

The landmark education bill’s rollout, expected to ramp up in fiscal 2021, was delayed by a year. Proposed changes to the state’s public transit system and roadways have sat in a conference committee for months, as have other major bills on police accountability, jobs and health care. Hundreds of bills have either been sent to study — often considered a quiet death sentence — or have languished waiting for the Legislature to act before the end of the year.

Peter DeMarco worried the bill to prevent people seeking emergency medical care from meeting the same fate as his late wife, Laura Levis, would slip through the cracks because of the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 9,000 people in Massachusetts alone.

“When the pandemic struck, I wasn’t sure a day would come when there’d be a vote on this bill in the House or in the Senate or anywhere,” said DeMarco, whose wife died after she couldn’t find the emergency room as she suffered a severe asthma attack.

Then came a call from Sen. Pat Jehlen, one of the bill’s main sponsors. The Somerville Democrat told DeMarco to watch out for the bill on Thursday. He watched the live stream as the Senate passed the bill during an informal session.

“To get to this point today is hugely significant, and I really believe that today’s vote will in turn encourage the House of Representatives to also vote to pass the bill,” he said.

In an average year, Senate approval for a bill is just one step on a long road to the governor’s desk. Some bills have passed the Senate in two or three sessions — meaning over four or six years, respectively — before reaching the House floor, undergoing changes in each chamber and being put to final votes.

COVID-19 has turned normalcy into a foreign concept. Gone are the days of packed legislative hearings where lawmakers faced compelling, sometimes disturbing testimony from residents. The State House is empty, save for a skeleton crew of maintenance workers and rangers. The House and Senate is virtual for the first time in its four-century history. The governor delivers news briefings on the state’s COVID-19 response at least once a week in the Gardner Auditorium, surrounded by a masked press pool.

Massachusetts State House

A sign is posted on a railing outside the Massachusetts State House Tuesday morning. The building was closed to the public to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

That doesn’t mean the Legislature can’t pass some bills, or even one bill filed before the pandemic.

“Even during COVID, people need to get to the emergency room,” Jehlen said. “It’s not that Laura is the only person this has happened to, but we don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

The proposal, H.4781/S.2767, would require the state Department of Public Health to create regulations for emergency room signage, lighting, doorbells or panic buttons and video surveillance monitoring of any visible hospital doors or entrances that are locked at night to look for anyone experiencing a medical emergency outside of the hospital.

The bill would also require that DPH convene a working group to make recommendations on how to better implement the signage, lighting and other improvements to hospital buildings.

“We were all surprised that there weren’t standards for emergency departments about access to their emergency departments,” said Rep. Christine Barber, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House. “So we set out to create standards.”

A former Boston Globe reporter, Levis had gotten a job writing and editing for Harvard Magazine and the Harvard Gazette. She worked out six days a week and competed in powerlifting tournaments, DeMarco wrote in “Losing Laura,” a story about her death in the Boston Globe Magazine.

The morning of Sept. 16, 2016, Levis walked up the hill to Somerville Hospital as she started experiencing asthma symptoms. She had a choice between two doors and chose one that appeared more brightly lit, DeMarco wrote in the magazine. She tried to open the door, but it was locked.

Levis’ family later learned Levis had tried to open the ambulance-access door. The official emergency entrance was about 100 feet in the other direction, but Levis didn’t make it. She called 911 seeking help, which prompted a nurse to walk out, but the nurse didn’t walk far enough to spot Levis, DeMarco wrote.

By the time Levis was found, she had gone into cardiac arrest. She died days later at age 34.

NWS Laura Levis

Laura Levis

An independent review identified deficiencies by the parent company, Cambridge Health Alliance. The 85-page report also highlights a number of changes the company implemented in the years since, partly because of the 2018 Globe article and partly because of renovations approved before Levis’ asthma attack.

Coakley and Richlin also said they found no evidence that hospital leaders lied to or intentionally deceived Levis’ family.

DeMarco has kept in contact with lawmakers, staffers, hospital experts and CHA leaders, which he says have continued to push for infrastructure and cultural changes after Levis’ death. Other hospitals leaders have told him they installed emergency intercom systems near their ambulance-access bays and are planning other changes, but there isn’t any law or regulation that requires a hospital to make those changes.

In September, the hospital dedicated one of its grand rounds sessions, formal meetings to discuss and learn about patient care, to Levis and the lessons learned from her death, DeMarco and a CHA spokesman said said.

The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association assembled a committee to review emergency room standards in light of Levis’ death.

The committee’s recommendations, reported in February, include an initial assessment of emergency departments, a standardized phone response for calls where people seeking help can’t get in and reviews of a hospital’s online address and whether it shows up accurately in Google Maps and other apps.

Among the recommendations to get employees on board was education for workers to make sure patients get sent to the right location and ER access drills.

“There has been will out there to try to learn from Laura’s death and make changes in the hospital world. That’s one of the goals of getting her story published,” DeMarco said.

If the bill became law, DPH would have to issue the emergency department regulations by Dec. 31, 2021. But it isn’t supposed to take effect until after the state’s emergency declaration over COVID-19 ends. Barber, the lead House sponsor, said the timeline gives hospitals enough time to shift from the COVID-19 response to whatever upgrades are needed to meet the new standards.

All that could be put on hold, however, if the bill doesn’t get to the House floor. Barber didn’t speculate on the bill’s chances of passing, but said DeMarco’s efforts to tell the story about Levis’ death has resonated with lawmakers.

“We have had a lot of conversations in the House on this bill, and I am hopeful we’re going to keep trying to push to move it forward,” said Barber, a Somerville Democrat.

Jehlen said she’s confident the bill will get passed in the House before the end of the legislative session.

“It’s not controversial. It’s simple,” she said. “Nobody is opposed to it, and it’s hard to say why you would not. Nobody can really say why they wouldn’t like to do it, and also we’ve been working really hard and also Pete has a really compelling story and he’s willing to tell it and he has told it.”

For DeMarco, the push for “Laura’s law” was a test of patience even before the pandemic, but the latest movement on the proposal is more than he expected out of 2020.

“Laura’s been gone for 4 years as of this September” he said. “I’ve learned just that change takes time. I’m hoping that the time for these changes has come.”

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