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New law honoring Laura Levis aims to improve hospital access, avert another tragedy

Laura Levis, with her husband Peter DeMarco.
Laura Levis, with her husband Peter DeMarco.

More than four years after Laura Levis collapsed outside the locked door of a hospital emergency room and later died, a new law in her name aims to prevent another such tragedy.

Massachusetts House and Senate lawmakers enacted the law in the final hours of their formal session last week, and Governor Charlie Baker plans to sign it Friday.

The measure known as “Laura’s Law” requires the state Department of Public Health to set standards for access to hospital emergency rooms, including appropriate lighting and signage to direct people to the ER, and security and monitoring of all ER entrances.

The new regulations will take effect up to one year after the end of the state’s coronavirus emergency.

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“I am proud to sign Laura’s Law and celebrate her memory in a meaningful way,” the governor said in a statement to the Globe.

Baker and state lawmakers credited Levis’s husband, Peter DeMarco, for honoring his wife’s legacy by advocating for changes that will help other people suffering health emergencies.

DeMarco detailed Levis’s life, and the many health care and emergency system failures that led to her death, in the Globe Magazine in November 2018. He explained how Levis, suffering an asthma attack, walked alone to Somerville Hospital early one morning in September 2016. She tried to enter the emergency room, but she found a locked door. She called 911, but her call was transferred.

By the time first responders found her in the dark, just 29 feet from the hospital’s main entrance, she had collapsed. Levis, 34, died after seven days in intensive care.

DeMarco, who has been pushing the legislation for nearly two years, said he was relieved the Legislature acted, particularly amid the crush of other legislative priorities during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The simple goal is that this law will make every emergency room in every hospital in Massachusetts a lot easier to find and lot easier to get into for any patient, especially patients who are in distress,” he told the Globe. “You don’t have a minute to spare … if you’re having a severe asthma attack like Laura.

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“I do think it’s going to save people’s lives,” DeMarco said. “No one else is going to die like she did because of this law.”

Cambridge Health Alliance, which operates Somerville Hospital, made updates to lighting, signage, and surveillance systems after Levis’s death. A 2019 review commissioned by Cambridge Health Alliance identified serious flaws at the hospital system but did not blame any individuals for the tragedy.

After DeMarco’s story about his wife was published, hospital officials apologized to him in person and supported his legislative effort.

“The passage of Laura’s Law is an important step toward improving the healthcare environment and a great tribute to the memory of Laura Levis,” Dr. Assaad Sayah, the chief executive of Cambridge Health Alliance, said in a statement. “We pledge our continued support to improve patient safety.”

Cambridge Health Alliance worked with the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association to develop a set of best practices for emergency room access for all hospitals, including recommendations for employee education and coordination with public safety officials.

“The tragic death of Laura Levis has served as a clear call to action for our hospitals. They are resolved to make sure that what happened to Laura never happens again,” Emily Dulong, vice president of government advocacy at the hospital association, said in a statement.

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Representative Christine P. Barber and Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, Democrats of Somerville, sponsored the law. Barber said she was pleased to see hospitals working to improve access voluntarily. But she said statewide standards are necessary.

“We really want to make sure there are strong standards for every single hospital in Massachusetts,” she said, “so no matter where any person is seeking emergency care, there are clear entrances, [and] nothing impedes or delays their care in any way.”

Lawmakers approved the bill early in the morning on Jan. 6, during the chaotic conclusion to their session. Despite widespread support, the bill’s passage wasn’t guaranteed because the pandemic delayed the legislative process in 2020 and lawmakers didn’t act on many priorities until the very end of their session.

“It’s sad that it took a tragedy like this to call attention to a problem that is not unique to that one hospital,” Jehlen said. “We have heard of other cases of people not being able to find the emergency room in other hospitals, and that’s dangerous because when people are in emergency, they need to be able to quickly get to where they want to be.”

Baker plans to sign the bill Friday afternoon at the State House with DeMarco and the bill’s sponsors by his side. Jehlen said it will be her first trip inside the State House since last March.

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Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.