BAL HARBOUR, FLA., FEB. 19 -- The AFL-CIO today effectively threw its political support behind national health insurance legislation that would force all employers either to provide medical coverage for their workers or pay a tax into a government insurance fund.

In a statement that still holds hope for a government-run national health insurance program eventually, the AFL-CIO Executive Council gave what amounted to an endorsement of a health care plan being drafted by the Senate Labor and Finance committees that would build on the nation's existing health insurance system.

The 35-member council, the policy-making body for the 14 million-member labor federation, said it was prepared to concentrate its efforts on "measures that can be enacted" and cited the need for legislation that would require all employers to provide medical coverage for their workers.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, in announcing the federation's health care position, insisted "we are not committed to any rigid single plan. We are in a negotiating posture and we intend to approach it in a practical way, working with the leadership in the House and Senate."

Kirkland and a majority of the members of the council are known to favor an employer-based insurance program along the lines recommended last year by the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care, commonly known as the Pepper Commission. The commission recommended an employer-backed insurance program supplemented by a public fund to cover those who do not have coverage.

This "play or pay" approach would require companies to either provide minimum health care coverage for employees or pay a tax into a government-run fund that would provide medical coverage for their workers.

Health care negotiators on the Senate Labor and Finance committees, working with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), are expected to introduce a bill next month that would adopt the Pepper Commission approach but add stricter measures to assure cost controls.

Kirkland said labor would be working closely with the members of the two Senate committees as well as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a leader in the health care field in the House. Waxman is expected to introduce in the House whatever bill the Senate leaders come up with.

The council statement represents a compromise between those unions that favored the employer-based, multiple-payer insurance program and those that want a government-run health plan similar to Canada's.

Mitchell warned the council members Monday that there was little, if any, chance Congress would approve a government health insurance plan in the near future.

To resolve the conflict within the labor movement, the council adopted a statement that kept a single government-run plan as the long-range goal.

Labor strategists believe momentum is building for reforming the health care system as a result of years of uncontrolled medical costs. The AFL-CIO goal is to help form a coalition that will push health care reform into the political debate in the 1992 presidential elections.