Veterans Administration chief Harry N. Walters said recently that Vietnam veterans will not have to wait for scientists to prove a direct link between the herbicide Agent Orange and certain kinds of ailments to qualify for disability benefits. If the government's long-awaited epidemiological study shows that Vietnam veterans, as a group, are suffering a "statistically significant" rate of health problems that is higher than the rate shown for non-veterans, the VA will consider those ailments service-connected.

While the VA rarely has insisted on a direct scientific link, several Vietnam veterans' groups had worried that it planned to wait until scientists decided whether herbicides caused specific health problems. So far, 16,102 Vietnam vets have filed disability claims, blaming exposure to Agent Orange for a variety of sicknesses. The VA has approved 1,237 of the claims, but insists that there is no proof that any was linked to Agent Orange.

Meanwhile, the epidemiological study that will compare the health of Vietnam vets and non-veterans is expected to begin soon. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta asked the Office of Management and Budget this week to approve the hiring of 14 full-time employes to work on the study. Their salaries will be paid by the VA, which has $3 million on hand for the investigation, expected to be finished sometime after 1985. John Broderick says he owes his life to Dr. Mary P. McAnaw. During a 1973 operation several doctors at the VA medical center in Leavenworth, Kan., had pronounced him dead and had covered his face with a sheet when McAnaw took over and revived him.

McAnaw's surgical skills have won her the gratitude of her patients and the acclaim of her peers, but VA officials consider her a troublemaker. During the past two years they have been trying to demote McAnaw, and they succeeded this month when a federal judge ordered her to comply with a transfer signed by Walters.

McAnaw, who had been chief of surgery at Leavenworth for nine years, was demoted to a surgeon's job at a Kansas City VA facility. The judge said the transfer wouldn't cause her "irreparable harm."

The VA contends that McAnaw was a poor manager who was uncooperative with her superiors. McAnaw says she is being punished because she questioned a 1980 experimental drug testing program involving psychiatric patients. She argued that the experiments endangered the health of patients.

Her complaints and others prompted a series of inconclusive investigations. Shortly thereafter, McAnaw's performance rating plunged. Her staff and duties were reduced.

A VA disciplinary board heard evidence for six days last year on 10 administrative charges against McAnaw dating to 1978. Among them were claims that she had delayed paperwork, had spoken disrespectfully to her superiors, failed to file the proper paperwork when her secretary requested a new paper stapler and let a clerk sign her name on a patient's medical records. The board ruled that the VA had valid reasons for transferring McAnaw.

The special counsel to the Merit Systems Protection Board is investigating McAnaw's complaints. She also has filed a $10,000 lawsuit against several VA officials. VIETNAM SUICIDE STUDY . . . Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) has asked the VA to determine if Vietnam-era veterans have a higher suicide rate than their non-veteran peers. In 1978, the VA told President Carter that Vietnam-era vets had a 23-percent-higher suicide rate than non-veterans of the same age. The agency later determined, however, that the figures were based on a sample that was not representative statistically. Former VA administrator Max Cleland tried to correct the misinformation, Cranston said, but it has been cited in subsequent news reports. There currently is "no reliable data" on the subject, Cranston said. Walters said the agency will look at its records to try to come up with correct figures.