Closing a Vietnam chapter

TENTATIVE settlement of the class-action suit by Vietnam veterans against seven chemical companies that made the defoliant Agent Orange closes another chapter in the Vietnam war. But several steps remain to be taken before the difficult Agent Orange issue is completely resolved.

Although the roots of the case lie in medical claims, the fundamental issue is the responsibility of the United States government, the American people, and some corporations toward the needs of veterans who served their nation in the Vietnam war. It is not necessary to agree with the assertions of veterans that their physical impairments are permanent, or that they were caused by exposure to Agent Orange - some who have studied the issues believe no causative link has been established.

Before the settlement arrived at this week becomes permanent, a judicial hearing is to be held so that all parties may express their views. It is thought unlikely that the proposal will be overturned. Yet several veterans who assert that they or their families were harmed by their exposure to Agent Orange have criticized the $180 million settlement as too low.

Veterans are permitted to withdraw from the settlement and individually sue the chemical firms if they so desire. But this would require them to prove liability in the case, which some legal experts feel might be difficult.

Several proposals now in Congress are aimed at ensuring that the government meets its obligations to these veterans. The House of Representatives has approved a limited bill to provide financial compensation to some veterans. It and several other measures are awaiting Senate action, expected in about two weeks.

Federally financed studies costing $150 million are being conducted into the ramifications of exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical named for the orange stripe around its containers. Some in the Senate and within the Reagan administration are concerned that Congress might establish an expensive compensation program for veterans without waiting for the results of these studies.

Several proposals in the Senate would set up a committee of experts to study the findings of all studies on Agent Orange. The committee also would establish guidelines for dealing with veterans' claims. These proposals set forth a careful and well-ordered procedure for dealing with the government's responsibility to veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

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