What Would You Do?: The Drug Cost Dilemma

If a woman couldn't afford vital insulin, would you buy it for her?

October 7, 2009, 3:13 PM

Nov. 5, 2009 — -- It's the debate heard around the nation: From town hall meetings to television and the Internet, angry questions about health care reform have reverberated, with supporters and protesters alike trying to make sense of a new medical age.

As more than 47 million Americans struggle without insurance and more than a third of the country not able to fill prescriptions because of the cost, ABC News wondered if anyone would come to their aid.

So, "What Would You Do?" rigged a local pharmacy in Morristown, N.J., with hidden cameras and microphones to determine if a nation divided on public health would intervene in private care to help a stranger in need.

Actors were hired to portray a very real health dilemma -- acting as customers who couldn't afford their medications.

Watch "What Would You Do?" on "20/20" FRIDAY at 10 p.m. ET

"What Would You Do?" cast Cam Kornman as an elderly woman with diabetes and living on Social Security. Would bystanders intervene, offer advice or just look the other way?

With the heated health care debate and the current economic crisis, all three reactions might have been expected. But perhaps what happened never could have been anticipated.

In the very first scene, Kornman entered the pharmacy and acted bewildered when the pharmacist told her the diabetes medicine she came to pick up cost $140. No one knew that both she and the pharmacist were actors.

"I'm sure there's a mistake," Kornman protested. "My co-payment is $20. It always has been."

But there was no mistake -- the drug she needed to have no longer was covered by her insurance.

Kornman dissolved into tears as other customers watched in dismay.

Pat Mouyeos, a diabetes sufferer herself, offered her words of wisdom,

"Why don't you have your doctor change the medication to something else if they're not going to cover it anymore?" she asked.

But that wasn't all she did. When "What Would You Do's" actress sat beside her, Mouyeos took out her wallet and handed her $5, saying it was a "necessity" to help.

"What Would You Do?" was astounded by the generosity of this stranger living on Social Security. But would other customers respond the same way?

In the next scene, Kornman acted equally distressed to learn her medication was now $120 more than she expected to pay. Another customer stood right next to her, seemingly aware of her predicament but neither said nor did anything.

Just when it seemed Mouyeos might have been one in a million, another customer jumped out of her seat.

"Listen, I'd like to help her out," Karen Wenberg said as she walked toward the counter.

When the pharmacist told Wenberg the entire prescription cost $140, she responded by sliding her credit card toward him and asked him to put $50 on the card.

"This is so embarrassing," Kornman protested.

Wenberg draped her arm over her and said, "Don't be embarrassed. You know what? Medication is so f***ing expensive. There is no reason to be embarrassed. ... Sometimes we just pass on the good that's been given to us."

But Wenberg's generosity didn't stop there.

As Kornman took out her cash to pay the remaining balance, Wenberg once again interceded.

"Is that all the money you have?" Wenberg asked. "Wait, sir. Give her back her cash and put it all on my card. Give it back."

Afterward, with cameras in tow, "What Would You Do?" anchor John Quinones asked Wenberg why she felt so compelled to help.

"Who wouldn't? I mean, who couldn't?" she said, and then hugged Kornman. "You're such a doll. God, who could let this little woman walk out of here without at least a frikkin' pill!"

"What Would You Do?" had been taping for only two hours and in every scene, someone had stepped up to help Kornman.

But was it just a fluke? "What Would You Do?" decided to try one more time.

Wally Westervelt couldn't help but overhear Kornman's dilemma and immediately spun into action.

"I'll help you out, I'll give you money if you need it," he told Kornman.

Then suddenly, he left the pharmacy.

It wasn't clear where he was going until the cameras caught him outside -- running down the sidewalk. He had gone to the ATM to get some cash.

"Ma'am, let's get your medication," he said to Kornman, and proceeded to pay for her medication.

When we caught up with Westervelt, he said even though she was a stranger, it broke his heart to see her go without what she needed.

It's a dilemma he knows all too well -- he works for a pharmaceutical company.

Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating said Westervelt related to Kornman on some level.

"She definitely looked like a person who was out of options, powerless, and her plight was not her own fault ... and that is almost, to us, the ideal victim, whom we are likely to help."

But what if the victim were a younger woman?

This time, "What Would You Do?" cast 30-something Traci Hovel to play the part of an unemployed woman badly in need of antibiotics.

Though customers appeared to notice right away, most stayed quiet.

Two men even let her leave in tears without her medication. They said later that she looked like she had more options.

"I think you've got to deal with your own life before you can help somebody else," bystander Steve Pangiochi said.

Time and again, no one offered to help Hovel pay for medication she so desperately needed. But why were people so much more willing to help the elderly actress?

Keating said Hovel was a less sympathetic victim.

"This actress was seen as having options and someone who could take responsibility for her own plight, so we didn't have a major motivating favor there for empathy and helping behavior," she explained.

So, would anyone help the younger actress?

In one of the very last scenes, one woman finally came to her rescue.

MaryAnne Connelly, a special education teacher, stood beside Hovel and almost immediately offered her assistance.

"If I gave her $25, would you give her half," she asked the pharmacist.

But then, she took it one step further. How long would that supply last Hovel? she asked.

"About a four-day supply ... she really needs to take it for 12 days," he responded.

"Here, give her $50 and put that there with mine," Connelly said, becoming the only person over the course of two days to help the younger actress.

But why?

"So many people don't take their medicine because they can't afford it," she said. "They can't take their medicine, they can't pay for it ... and I don't like that. I don't think it's right."

Neither did the four other strangers who opened their hearts and their wallets -- reaching out a hand to help a woman in need.