A simple test that could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars has been knocked back for Medicare funding, despite evidence showing its impact in stopping Australia’s most devastating killer — heart disease.

The condition kills 51 people every day — more than any other single illness — and injures a person every ten minutes, new figures show.

Analysis by the Heart Foundation reveals the economic cost is a staggering $6.7 billion a year which combines the $2 billion hit to the health budget and lost productivity in the workforce. And the personal impact is enormous, devastating families who lose loved ones or have to care for relatives disabled by the condition.

Yet it is relatively ignored, compared to other diseases. And there is no Medicare rebate for a heart test that could save more than $1.5 billion for a cost of $170 million.

“During the half-hour people spent having breakfast today, another person died; in the hour it took to read this newspaper, we would increase that by two more. This is a tragic scenario and we simply cannot allow it to continue,” said Heart Foundation CEO Professor John Kelly.

One in four people who’ve had a heart attack will never work again and will have difficulty bathing and dressing themselves, one in three have difficulty grocery shopping and it affects their sex life and energy for hobbies.

Millions of Australians are at risk of having a heart attack in the next five years but most won’t know this because, unlike for cancers, we have no national screening program for the disease.

Less money is spent on heart disease than less deadly conditions. Nielsen advertising data shows between 2015 and 2017 only $6.5 million was spent advertising heart disease compared to $24.5 million spent on cancer.

Public ignorance is at a massive high, with most Australians unaware of their heart health.

That is why News Corp Australia is partnering with the Heart Foundation to call on the Federal Government to introduce Medicare-funded heart health checks among a series of steps to stop the slaughter.

Its estimated the checks would cost Medicare $170 million over five years and if they resulted in more people taking medication it could cost a further $600 million but overall it would save the economy more than $1.5 billion.

More importantly the heart health check would prevent 76,500 heart attacks over the next five years.

Nine in ten New Zealanders had a public-funded heart check in the last five years. And in the UK where over 12 million people were offered the test, half of them took it and one person was identified as being at high risk of heart disease for every 6-10 people tested.

A Medicare rebate for this heart check up — which looks at a person’s blood pressure, cholesterol, lifestyle factors and smoking status and estimate their risk of a heart attack in the next five years — is backed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, the Consumer’s Health Forum and the Public Health Association.

Yet in December last year Australia’s Medicare Benefits Review taskforce refused to fund the same test here claiming it required more evidence to justify its introduction.

“There is some evidence that CVD (cardiovascular disease) systematic risk assessment may have favourable effects on CVD risk factors, but not enough to justify introduction of general screening,” the committee found.

The committee agreed that “any further expansion of Health Assessments will require evidence of their effectiveness”.

RACGP president Dr Harry Nespolon says a Medicare rebate for a heart health check would provide an incentive for GPs to do the test and would act as a reminder for patients to get screened.

“This check would change the way Medicare funds health, switching from funding illness to funding prevention,” he says.

Cardiac Society Australia and New Zealand president Dr Leonard Kritharides said a heart health check would let people know they were at risk and give them the opportunity to take action to prevent a heart attack.

“Having to explain to people who have lost a loved one without warning is the hardest part of my job,” he said.

Public Heath Association chief Terry Slevin says there is a sound evidence base for the heart health check which is used successfully around the world to detect and manage heart disease.

The Australian Medical Association, however says it does not support a new Medicare item number for a single disease and would prefer the government fund a new longer consultation where prevention for all types of preventable diseases could be checked.

Currently a 30-minute health assessment for those in the plus-45 risk group costs around $60 and that could be used as a benchmark price for the heart health check.

More changes are also needed to cut the death toll — and that’s why we are demanding further action from government.

One in five Australians who have one heart attack will go on to have another one, because only one in three Australians with heart disease get access to rehabilitation care — a number that must rise.

The guidelines our doctors rely on to prevent heart disease are seven years out of date, not reflecting new advice on cholesterol and family risk factors. $500,000 in government funding is needed to update them.

Researchers have found our health system is discriminating against women who have heart attacks by giving them inferior treatment and not educating them that they way they experience a heart attack can be different to a man. This needs to change.

Indigenous Australians experience rheumatic heart disease at the highest rates in the world and we need a ten year goal to develop a vaccine to prevent it and better manage children and adults with the disease.

Smoking, obesity and lack of exercise are among the leading causes of heart disease. We need strategies and mass media campaigns to get more Australians to quit smoking; start eating a healthy diet; and exercise for 150 minutes a week.

Tackling our biggest killer will not only save lives — it will save the health system billions of dollars. It’s time for our leaders to #SHOWSOMETICKER and tackle this disease.

The Brooks family know first hand how badly we need a national screening program for heart disease after losing their beloved father Rocky to a surprise heart attack last year.

Fifty-nine-year-old Rocky was a superfit mail courier from Maroubra who suffered a massive heart attack while playing tennis with his mates and was unable to be revived, even though there was a doctor on site.

His family thought he should have been the last candidate for a heart attack.

“He did over 10,000 steps a day, played touch footy and tennis, went swimming, came to yoga with me, was not a heavy drinker and didn’t smoke,” says his daughter Madeleine Brooks.

“He had no warning, a heart health check would definitely have helped him.”

The sudden death of their father has traumatised the family.

“We had no chance to say goodbye, it was heartbreaking. You don’t expect to lose someone that way,” said Madeleine.

Rocky’s daughters are devastated their dad won’t be able to walk them down the aisle when they marry or watch his grandchildren grow up and between them they have raised $17,000 to help the Heart Foundation’s work.

Rocky was a Rabbitohs fan who constantly replayed the 2014 NRL Grand Final; he was always there to watch his daughters play sport; and he was so popular that 1,000 people came to his funeral.

The family called him the “walking souvenir” because he loved to wear tourist clothing from around the world.

The family legend is that one day he came out in a hat from Miami, a shirt from Seattle, a jumper from London and shorts from Bali … and thought he looked like Brad Pitt.

Rocky’s daughters are pleading with the government to fund a heart health check for all Australians so it can prevent other surprise heart attacks.

“I’d love to stop other people going through this,” said Stephanie.