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Stephy and Carl Barstow have become experts at making a little money go a long way. But even with their frugality, this senior couple from Sherman Oaks has to struggle to make ends meet: One of the chief reasons is the cost of prescription medications. The Barstows spend thousands of dollars a year on them.

They are heading for Vancouver on the Rx Express in hopes that they will be able to staunch the flow of money going to pharmaceuticals here in California.

Stephy worked as a social worker for Los Angeles County for many years, helping with the developmentally disabled, working in AFDC placement. Carl was a contractor. When he retired, he had "zilch," Stephy says. She left her job with stress disability, and had dental, vision and "catastrophic" coverage through the county.

Over the years of their retirement, Stephy has had her share of health problems, and Carl has endured a couple of minor strokes, as well as back surgery "that went bad." Bed-ridden for months, he came home in April and now is able to get around with a walker.

The Barstows take many medications, including Stephy's Diovan for blood pressure and Nexium for acid reflux. Carl also takes medications for blood pressure, diuretics, and others.

They thought President Bush's much-ballyhooed Medicare reform plan would help, but it has turned out to be virtually useless so far, Stephy says. "There was supposedly going to be a card that would save people money. But there are 30 or 40 of them, and nobody has told us which ones to use. They cost $30 a year, and are each of them is pegged to a drug company."

While trying to decipher that, Stephy has become a mastermind at making do with little money.

"It's not easy," Stephy says. "If we go out, we figure out how to share a meal. We drink water and don't buy a drink." Stephy shops at the second hand stores and gets her hair done at a beauty school.

They go out to only three or four movies a year, and buy movies at the thrift shops. When they play Bingo they take advantage of donations from Trader Vic's or Vons. It's sometimes day-old food, but it's usually fine, Stephy says.

By being careful and looking for specials, the Barstows have even been able to travel. Traveling has been a tradition for them during their 20-year marriage: they have ridden camels in North Africa and journeyed to Israel, among other places.

"On the whole, we do wonderfully well," Stephy says. "Everyone thinks I spend a fortune. Thank God for the senior center," she adds. "We can eat there for $2."

While Stephy has learned to get by with panache, she knows she and Carl would have more financial flexibility if it were not for the unconscionable cost of prescription drugs in California and the U.S. She considers it "ludicrous," and would like to see some sort of state regulatory board keeping an eye on health insurers and the medical profession.