The Carter administration will postpone action on national health insurance, a priority Democratic platform and campaign, issue, until at least next year because of the competition for federal dollars.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. told a Senate Finance Committee hearing yesterday on his nomination to be Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare that national health insurance will be "one of the centerpieces of the Carter administration." But he added he does not expect the administration's proposed legislation will be sent to Congress this year. He said jobs legislation and welfare reform will have higher priority.

HEW would draft the legislation and administer the program if it is financed by payroll taxes and general federal revenues as proposed by the Democratic Party platform.

The delay was announced as the American Medical Association, principal opponent of national health insurance, sent a spokesman to Capitol Hill to outline its alternative plan and the head of the United Auto Workers, leading supporter of national health insurance, met with House Democratic leaders to urge action on such legislation.

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that must initiate congressional action on the tax part of the health insurance program, said he would wait for the Carter administration to send up a bill. Meanwhile, Rostenkowski said his subcommitee will move ahead on trying to correct fraud and abuse in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Rostenkowski said he had noted as the presidential campaign moved along that Jimmy Carter talked of pushing a national health insurance program only "as revenues permit."

"I could see it getting further away," said Rostenkowski.

Rostenkowski believes that Congress must move step by step - not all at once - toward the universal, comprehensive, mandatory, uniform program of total health care that is called for by the party platform, by such congressional sponsors as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. James C. Corman (D-Calif.) and by outside pressure groups such as the United Auto Workers.

Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers who will soon retire but continue to head a task force on national, health insurance, met with House Democratic leaders and Rostenkowski yesterday. He sounded willing to go slow and compromise if necessary to make a start on a universal health insurance program, which liberals have sought for most of this century.

Woodcock told a reporter that he had told Carter during a meeting last month that the UAW would "push hard" for action on the Kennedy Corman bill in this Congress but that they had "not talked timetables."

Carter "is sympathetic but has budget problems," said Woodcock. "It is up to us to make a case for it." Woodcock said he hoped that if the 95th Congress could not pass Kennedy-Corman it could at least "lay the basis for it" in the 98th by getting agreement on cost figures and other underlying assumptions.

Through Medicare and Medicaid Congress has provided programs covering health costs of the aged and the poor. The Kennedy-Corman bill would provide a program covering all health costs rich and poor alike, financed by exployer-employee contributions through Social Security payroll taxes plus other general funds from the federal treasury.

The AMA's physician members have over the years denounced the health plan as socialized medicine. Recently the AMA has come forward with its own health insurance program to counter its negative image.

The AMA's president, Dr. Richard E. Palmer, held a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday to promote its bill. Under the privately operated AMA plan, employers would be required to offer employees health insurance policies and pay at least two-thirds of the cost. The government's role would be to set a ceiling on premiums and pay insurance premiums for the poor.

Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.) a sponsor of the AMA bill, applauded the AMA for "taking a step forward in this field " and said that, unlike Kennedy-Corman, the program was "not so expensive that it will be defeated by fiscal arguments alone."