The die is cast for a new auto industry health-care benefits structure with Ford Motor Co.’s $3.8 billion cash payment to the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Assn. retiree health-care trust.

The auto maker today also makes a $255 million cash payment on other securities. Ford had the option to pay up to $610 million of its VEBA obligation in stock but received a discount by paying in cash.

Ford still owes $3.6 billion to the VEBA. But with today’s outlays, combined with $3 billion payment in April on its 2013 revolving credit facility, Ford has reduced its debt load by more than $7 billion in the second quarter, saving the company more than $470 million in annual interest expense.

Ford’s automotive debt now stands at about $27 billion.

“Our One Ford plan to profitably grow our business is working, and we are increasingly confident about the future,” CEO Alan Mulally says in a statement. “We expect to continue to improve our balance sheet as we deliver on our plan.”

The VEBA payments today were made early, a result of an agreement inked last week between Ford and the United Auto Workers union that allows the auto maker the flexibility to pre-pay its VEBA obligations in cash periodically during each year.

The VEBA was established during negotiations with the UAW in 2007. It is administered by an independent board. The UAW is represented, but does not have majority membership.

The union declines comment on today’s payment, as well as last week’s agreement.

The reduction in Ford’s debt load possibly could calm the nerves of jittery investors. Ford’s stock prices have weakened recently over concerns about the strength of the economic recovery and a possible double-dip recession.

Ford stock was trading just about $10 per share at mid-day today. It slumped to $9.88 Tuesday.

Its 2010 peak is $14.57, recorded in April.

Ford is unfazed. Spokesman John Stoll says the auto maker doesn’t manage the business on “day-to-day stock” fluctuations.

“We’re managing the business for the long term,” he tells Ward’s. “Our message to Wall Street, employees, dealers and stakeholders and the public is we’re going to be solidly profitable in 2010 and going to post positive automotive cash flow, and that hasn’t changed.

“This VEBA and (securities) payment is a fulfillment of a promise we made to work down our balance sheet in a prudent and aggressive matter,” Stoll adds. “Today’s actions reinforce that feeling and show we’re serious about the promise we made.”

bpope@wardsauto.com