WASHINGTON - Banks will lose the power to offer medical savings accounts this year unless Congress passes legislation making these experimental products permanent and more widely available.Few banks, or consumers, have shown interest in the tax-sheltered accounts since Congress created a four-year pilot program in 1996. During the trial, lawmakers capped the number of accounts at 750,000 and restricted them to the self-employed or those who work at businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

According to Internal Revenue Service estimates, only 44,000 medical savings accounts have been opened. Under the law, individuals may contribute up to $2,250 a year tax free to cover medical expenses; families may contribute up to $3,700. Though there is a penalty for withdrawing funds for nonmedical expenses, people can make withdrawals for any reason after they turn 65.

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