DETROIT (AP) _ Dow Corning Corp. is a step closer to settling thousands of claims from women who say the company's silicone breast implants made them ill.

Claimants overwhelmingly approved a $3.2 billion settlement plan that would pay as much as $300,000 to women whose implants caused a serious medical condition, Dow Corning announced Tuesday.

Nearly 96 percent of the 112,774 women who cast ballots voted to approve the plan. If it is approved, the first claims could be paid by the end of the year.

``I'm not saying this is the best thing since sliced bread, but it is finally a process by which we can draw an end to this and get some people the medical care that they have not been able to get,'' said Sybil Niden Goldrich, a trustee appointed to represent implant recipients on the Tort Claimants Committee.

The settlement will go back to court June 28, when a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Bay City will hear arguments from creditors opposed to the plan.

``It's always up to the judge, but there's no reason for me to believe it won't be confirmed,'' said T. Michael Jackson, a Dow Corning spokesman.

Under the settlement plan, claimants who want their silicone implants removed would get $5,000 for the surgery or $20,000 if their implants had ruptured.

In addition to money for implant removal, women with the most serious medical conditions could receive up to $300,000. Women without a disease claim could get $2,000.

If the court approves the deal, claimants worldwide would receive information explaining how they could collect funds. Women still have the option to reject the settlement and pursue litigation, Jackson said.

``Because of the values and options available, we are confident that most people will elect to settle their claims,'' he said.

Ms. Goldrich said she is relieved that women who want to have their implants removed would be able to get the money for the procedure.

``For women to finally be able to get these dreadful items removed from their bodies is very important,'' Ms. Goldrich said. ``It's an expensive process and one that needs to be done. This settlement, should it be approved, will give people that opportunity.''

As part of the settlement, a woman whose medical condition changes after she has been compensated for that condition also could qualify for an additional payment.

The settlement plan includes an additional $1.3 billion for claims from suppliers, lenders and hospitals owed money by Dow Corning.

Some classes of creditors, including commercial claimants and debt speculators, did not approve the plan by the necessary two-thirds vote. Dow plans to ask the court to ``cram down'' the plan, a process which would allow the court to accept it despite objections.

``As we've gone through this entire process, we've had the agreement to disagree,'' Jackson said. ``But we've agreed to move this process forward to reach a positive resolution for everyone.''

An estimated 1 million to 2 million U.S. women have received implants, either to restore their breasts after cancer surgery or for enlargement.

Concerns about implants surfaced in the mid-1980s. Thousands of women who had implants have since claimed leaks have caused serious diseases of the immune system such as lupus, depression, kidney disease and serious joint damage.

Several studies have found little solid evidence that implants cause diseases. In 1992, however, the FDA restricted silicone gel implants to mastectomy patients in medical experiments. Saline-filled implants are still approved for use in cosmetic or reconstructive surgery.

Midland-based Dow Corning, one of the largest makers of breast implants, is co-owned by Dow Chemical Co. and Corning Inc.